‘Atlanta’ hinted at the haunted history of Lake Lanier. But what’s the real story?
The season 3 premiere began and climaxed at an unnamed version of the storied, memeified Georgia lake. The real history is just as dark.
This story has spoilers for the Season 3 premiere of Atlanta.
In the opening scene of the Season 3 premiere for FX’s Atlanta, a white man and a Black man sit in a boat on an unnamed lake, discussing why the murky waters frighten them. The Black man comments that he nearly drowned in the water once, recalling a feeling of being “pulled” underneath. “It’s a whole town underneath us,” the white man says. “The town was Black, too. A self-governed Black town.”
“Why do you think so many people die around here?” he adds. The scene ends with the white man monologuing about “whiteness” before the Black man is pulled off the boat and into the lake by a group of Black hands.
This scene — and most of the episode, for that matter — doesn’t feature any of Atlanta’s regular cast, but it doesn’t have to. Setting the season premiere around a body of water that’s haunted by past racial injustices is a reminder of how the show expertly uses folklore to provide social commentary on metro Atlanta, and the rest of the country.
Watching the episode, it’s not hard to surmise that the frightening lake the characters are on is Lake Lanier, the 38,000-acre man-made body of water located north of Atlanta. The popular attraction, named after poet and Confederate army soldier Sidney Lanier, hosts about 10 million people annually — but it’s also seen a number of deaths, leading to long-held rumors that the waters are haunted by a flooded Black town known as Oscarville. Last year, Oxford American reported that 500 people have died at Lake Lanier since its creation in 1956; nearly 200 of those deaths occurred in the past 28 years.
The haunting rumors are a regular fixture on social media, resurfacing every time something tragic occurs there. When a boat exploded on the lake last year, injuring six people, one person tweeted, “Waiting for that movie about the curse of Lake Lanier & its origin story. Cause this is a real-life horror lake. I will never set foot on it.”
Conduct a Twitter search of “Oscarville Georgia,” and you’ll find many tweets about the racial cleansing that occurred in the town. As with the Atlanta premiere, though, the tweets mix factual information with long-held myths that haven’t been thoroughly debunked online.
Despite media reports and social media posts claiming otherwise, Oscarville wasn’t a predominantly Black town, nor was it run by the few African Americans who lived there. These reports seemingly draw on real-life details of the forced removal of Black people from Forsyth County — where Oscarville was located — in the early 20th century, which led to an outsized impact on the area’s racial makeup that still holds today. It all started in September 1912, when an 18-year-old white woman from Oscarville named Mae Crow was found beaten and unconscious in the woods. Crow, who had also reportedly been raped, died as a result of her injuries a few weeks later. At the time, Oscarville was a small, “overwhelmingly white” town with a total population of 63 people, according to Patrick Phillips’s 2016 book Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America.
Four Black men were eventually arrested in connection with Crow’s death. Charges against one of the men were dismissed, but the other three — who, per Oxford American, are widely believed to have been innocent — suffered a far worse fate. 24-year-old Rob Edwards, was dragged from jail and lynched by a mob of white residents who fired gunshots into his body as it hung in the town square. 16-year-old Ernest Knox and 18-year-old Oscar Daniel were convicted by a jury, and 5,000 people watched as they were hanged.
Crow’s death, as well as the alleged rape of another white woman named Ellen Grice, spurred white residents to terrorize the 1,100 Black people who lived in Forsyth County at the time. That included a Black family who owned more than 20 acres of land; per Phillips’s book, they were forced to flee after their home was riddled with bullets. Within about two months, practically the entire Black community had been pushed out. A 1920 census, Phillips noted, listed 23 Black people in the area.
Today, Black people still only make up about 4% of the Forsyth County population.
By the time the area was flooded in the 1950s to create Lake Lanier, the Black folk who once occupied Oscarville and other parts of Forsyth County were long gone.
The US Army Corp of Engineers, which built Lake Lanier, dispels the long-held rumor that there’s an old town under the water. Their website notes that “the area was mostly farmland” when the government purchased it from about 700 families. “The majority of the buildings that were removed or demolished were farmhouses and outbuildings such as barns.”
But while the town of Oscarville wasn’t still standing in 1956, the land acquired to create Lake Lanier could tie back to Forsyth’s former Black residents who once owned some of that farmland. Elliot Jaspin, the author of Buried in the Bitter Waters, has said only 24 of the county’s 58 Black landowners were able to sell their property shortly after being forced out, and even then it was often at a steep discount. One Black farmer, for instance, received only $550 for the land he originally purchased for $1,500. As the Digital Library of Georgia notes, “For thirty-four landowners, though, there is no record of sale. Their white neighbors simply took the abandoned land through a legal process called ‘adverse possession’ and gained ownership over the following decades by paying the property taxes. The issue of stolen land would spark a debate about reparations in the 1980s.”
Lisa M. Russell, author of Underwater Ghost Towns in North Georgia, says the comment made in Atlanta that people drowned as the lake was created is false. “It took years for the water to fill, it wasn’t done in a day, like a pool,” she says, while noting that there are likely burial grounds underneath the lake. “[Former Native American residents] had their ceremonial mounds just covered up with water. The Army Corps of Engineers will say there’s no graves under there. But, they didn’t have things like ground penetrating radars where you could find bodies. You couldn’t do that back then. African American slaves did not have burial [markers].”
Russell says Atlanta writers were seemingly nodding to another Lake Lanier legend, though. A later scene in the episode shows two white women attempting to drive off a bridge and into the lake with their foster child in the car — a likely reference to the Lady of the Lake ghost stories that have prevailed since 1958 when two women, Delia May Parker Young and Susie Roberts, “skidded off a bridge while crossing the lake and disappeared,” according to Oxford American. The car, with Roberts’s remains inside, wasn’t found until 1990.
This particular scene, and the Atlanta Season 3 premiere episode overall, also appears to be a nod to the Hart family murders that occurred in California in 2018 when two white women drove themselves and their six adopted children off a cliff. Early in the episode, the character of Loquareeous wears a brimmed hat and wears a sign that says “Free Hugs” — just like Devonte Hart, the Black boy who was killed alongside his adopted siblings and mothers.
Without actually naming Lake Lanier or Oscarville in the episode, Atlanta is able to take a few creative liberties with the story. Still, these references are a chilling reminder of the real history and the racial terror once inflicted on the Black residents of Forsyth County.