Atlanta fans can’t get enough K-Pop

From concerts and stores to social media pages and special events, the genre is on the rise here.
K-pop videos play on a monitor next to the store’s logo at the KPOP Store in USA, Thursday, November 9, 2023, in Doraville, Ga. K-Pop is growing in popularity in Atlanta and the KPOP Store in USA is one of the larger stores in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

K-pop videos play on a monitor next to the store’s logo at the KPOP Store in USA, Thursday, November 9, 2023, in Doraville, Ga. K-Pop is growing in popularity in Atlanta and the KPOP Store in USA is one of the larger stores in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

For the first six months of the year, no rapper had a No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100. So, what did it take to finally break through? K-pop — with an assist from Clayton County rapper Latto.

On July 14, Jungkook, a member of South Korean boy band BTS, dropped the single “Seven,” a U.K. garage-inspired dreamy pop jam that equates falling in love with sexual pleasure. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, topped the Billboard Global 200 chart, set four Guinness World Records and currently has more than 1 billion streams.

The song’s record-breaking success speaks to the world’s fast-growing embrace of the Korean art form. And the song’s inclusion of an Atlanta rapper offers a promising glimpse into the future of K-pop in Atlanta.

K-pop idol music emerged from Korea in the early 1990s as a pop music art form known for its skilled dancing; pristine, high-pitched singing; and fusion of other genres like rap, pop and rock. In turn, the music is indelibly well-produced and sounds like a masterclass in popular music across generations. Its singers are chameleons, adapting to different genres as if their brains are automatically wired to do so. But the music still manages to feel authentic, which adds to K-pop’s global appeal.

While the success of bands like BTS and Blackpink made K-pop a cultural phenomenon, the genre has swiftly expanded to encompass seemingly countless girl groups and boy bands who’ve created a standard for complete domination on the Billboard charts. As of this writing, the K-pop group Stray Kids has the No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 (their fourth one), kicking Taylor Swift to second place.

And the fans cannot get enough of it.

K-pop thrives on community

In Atlanta, K-pop boasts a collaborative community of budding dance groups, stores and social media pages that are working to make the genre more popular in the city.

K-pop Store in USA in Doraville may look small on the outside, but the inside is K-pop galore. There are plush dolls inspired by the K-pop girl group IVE. There’s a Nacific x Stray Kids skincare set. There are light sticks in all sorts of colors. Signed album covers and magazines also adorn the store. It’s ground zero for K-pop merchandise in Atlanta.

Owner Daniel Lim’s parents opened the store as a Korean video store called On the Way Home in 2004 after they immigrated here from South Korea. Seven years ago, when K-pop took off, they changed the inventory and the name.

Now, the store is a premier destination for fans to prepare for K-pop concerts in the area. The store hosts events like dance contests and giveaways. Last year, they started hosting an annual yard sale for discounted items due to the demand of K-pop merchandise.

K-pop fan Cruz Segura of Hapeville leaves after shopping at the KPOP Store in USA in Doraville. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Kenny Panuga was a loyal shopper at K-pop Store in USA before getting a job there two years ago. He’s now the manager and has witnessed the rise of K-pop in Atlanta first-hand. He said the store gets at least 500 customers during events and on concert days, with people coming from different states and as far away as South America.

“We make sure that it’s a great experience for (customers) whenever they come here,” Panuga said. “We give out candies, we give out freebies like those photo cards that people love ... we come up with fun events like the holiday markets ... that’s what makes a lot of our customers loyal to us.”

The supersized fandom has led to more arena shows in the city. State Farm Arena’s first K-pop show was the group Twice in February 2022. Since then, the venue has booked 11 K-pop concerts, most of which sold out. Ive will perform there in March.

“It went from something that we were just trying and dipping our toes in,” said Trey Feazell, executive vice president of arena programming for State Farm Arena. “It’s an incredible experience. The fandom that follows the K-pop artists is really unbelievable. They show up really, really early to the venue,” he said.

With fans lining up at 9 a.m. for a 7 p.m. concert, Feazell realized they needed to make it an event.

“We have things going on. We have music, we have contests, we have water. Everything that you need for them to be prepared.”

In fact, Feazell said, K-pop is expanding so quickly in Atlanta that some of the acts are now selling out stadiums and skipping the arena market entirely.

“(Bands) may start at the Roxy, then they may go to another theater, then they come to us and ... (then) they’ll go to a stadium ... The thing that makes it so great is that they just keep building talent,” Feazell said. “It’s not like you have two or three in the genre and those are the only ones that can sell. They’re growing the genre, and I truly feel like it’s here to stay.”

Wearing a white rabbit hat, Brittani Thomas of North Carolina and Lily Guffey of Mississippi, wearing a puppy hat, line up outside of State Farm Arena before the K-Pop band Stray Kids concert in March. Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

More than music

Crystal Borges, 21, of Duluth attended her first K-pop concert in 2019 — Day6 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. She noticed fans holding banners and photo cards of the artists. She’d never seen that type of engagement at a concert before, and she wanted to be a part of it.

“Me and my friend decided, well, there are a lot of events for these in Korea, but we don’t have as many here in Atlanta because K-pop is not as big here. What if we just started doing our own events?” she said.

They started with cafe events where fans would hang out and listen to music. As attendance grew, the events became more elaborate. That same year, she cofounded KpopxAtlanta, a popular social media page that promotes K-pop concerts and events in the city. The page has more than 5,000 followers across TikTok, Instagram and Twitter.

She said K-pop in Atlanta began growing swiftly in 2020. Before then, there were fewer concerts and she recalls seeing empty sections at a Stray Kids concert at the Fox Theatre before the group started selling out arenas and having No. 1 albums.

Borges attributes K-pop’s popularity in part to the merchandise and extras tucked inside their albums like trading cards, photo strips, postcards and keychains.

“I think the fans really love the appeal of that, of just, like, ‘Oh let me open this album, let me see which member I got. Oh, let me trade photo cards with you.’

“NewJeans, (their album) came with a little purse, which is just super cute,” she said. “So you see all these new things that you don’t really see with these Western artists, and I think a lot of people are like, wow, that’s really cool. I wanna be involved in this.”

Fans love to collect K-pop merchandise like these neck lanyards at the KPOP Store in USA. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Another contributing factor to K-pop’s popularity is the fact that it appeals to music fans across different backgrounds.

“The K-pop community here, it’s very diverse,” said Borges, who’s white. “A lot of the fans, despite the language barrier, have been able to enjoy the music and become fans of the artists without necessarily knowing Korean, essentially.”

Maliyah Flores is an Atlanta dance instructor who shares K-pop cover dances with her 64,000 followers on social media. A transplant from Boston, she says there’s a difference between the K-pop audiences in the two cities.

“Most people who like K-pop up there are either Asian or they’re white people ... but down here I see mostly people that look exactly like me and like the same things as me,” said Flores, who is Black.

Describing K-pop dance style as energetic and pop-infused, she credits it for helping launch her dance career.

“K-pop originally is inspired by a lot of Black music artists, especially, like, artists from the ‘90s. With that, I feel like K-pop has ... picked up the whole dancing aspect that these artists would do in their music videos. Now, it’s like in every single K-pop song, every single music video, there’s choreo from beginning to end, like nonstop.”

Cristina Lopez is another K-pop dance instructor in Atlanta. At the age of 15, she started Seoul Cristina K-pop Dance Academy in Roswell after failing to find any classes in her area. Two years ago, she formed the Seoul of Atlanta dance team. She hopes Atlanta will be filled with K-pop dance studios in the future.

“I can’t keep driving almost two hours to take these classes, so I thought, what if I do my own classes in my area for those people who don’t have to drive all the way over there,” Lopez, now 18, said. “So I just rented out a studio, made myself a website and Instagram and just started promoting it from there.”

For Borges, it’s that type of community and commitment that makes Atlanta’s K-pop scene one of the more active ones. Because Atlanta’s scene isn’t as big as those in New York and Los Angeles, there’s a greater sense of camaraderie and collaboration, especially during concerts, she said. She believes the community will continue to grow and hopes to see Atlanta become a hub for K-pop.

“In the beginning, when we saw artists touring ... it felt like nobody was coming to Atlanta. I think what’s amazing about it is how much we’ve grown since then ... I think it’s just, like, grown into this amazing community.”


Upcoming K-pop shows

Woodz. Dec. 8. $39-275. Gas South Arena, 6400 Sugarloaf Pkwy., Duluth. ticketmaster.com

Chuu. Dec. 15. $86-312. Coca-Cola Roxy, 800 Battery Ave. SE #500, Atlanta. livenation.com.

Vav. Jan. 13. $69-237. Center Stage, 1374 W Peachtree St. NW, Atlanta. ticketmaster.com.

Ive. March 24. $69-$179. State Farm Arena, 1 State Farm Drive, Atlanta. ticketmaster.com

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