Written : Zippy
Over the last decade Atlanta’s reputation as a hub for fandom and geek culture has grown. Much of this growth is driven by the success of major conventions like DragonCon and MomoCon as well as the presence of major Hollywood film and television production teams around the city. Co-founders Tolden Williams, aka Troop Brand and his wife, Stephanie Lindo Williams, still felt like there was something missing, especially when it came to nightlife. So as the peak of the pandemic faded, they created Trap Sushi, an incredibly popular bimonthly celebration of anime, music, Japanese culture, food, and, of course, Atlanta itself.
“We used to always hang out up and down Edgewood Avenue in Atlanta, and visit the performance venues, clubs, and bars, but when Covid hit, all the places that we really enjoyed in Atlanta shut down,” said Stephanie, reflecting on the loss of major entertainment businesses and spaced during the pandemic. “We would just watch them topple one by one. So when everything started opening up, we knew there was a void now. So we were like, ‘Let’s throw something ourselves.’”
Stephanie and Tolden were particularly interested in establishing a space for fellow anime fans looking for fun activities to do year round.
Stephanie shared, “For anime, you do have MomoCon, Anime Weekend Atlanta, and other cons, but those are only once a year, unless you travel across the country to other conventions. We wanted something recurring here in Atlanta.”
Both Stephanie and Tolden had their own unique story of how they got into fandom, and how it’s impacted their lives. For Stephanie she grew up in Atlanta with friends who were already into anime and Japanese culture.
Thinking back on her youth, Stephanie said, “My best friends growing up are Vietnamese, and they were really into anime and manga. So that’s how I was exposed growing up, and I was watching a bunch of girly high school anime and reading Chobits and stuff like that. I’ve just kept at it over the years.”
Tolden’s environment in Mississippi was quite different from Stephanies coming from a smaller town.
Thinking back to his youth, Tolden said “My first introduction to anime was watching cartoons on Saturday morning. I later found out many were anime. I then went to a thrift shop with my mom, and something drew me to this VHS tape in the store. It turned out to be Akira, which is one of the first Japanese movies to break out in America.”
When asked if Tolden felt alone in his love of anime in his hometown, he replied “I definitely did until I came across other fans. It’s funny how your love for things will introduce you to others and create bonds. I found two other people who were into anime like I was, and they are still my closest friends to this day.”
This sense of community found through fandom, and especially anime conventions, was a key driver for Stephanie and Tolden in creating Trap Sushi.
Tolden recalled, “Stephanie took me to my first anime con Anime Weekend Atlanta. I’d never gone to an anime convention in my life, but I’ve been an avid reader of manga and watcher of anime for years. So at my first convention I’m mind blown. This is everything I love all in one place? How long has this been going on? It was very surprising. Then I’m like wait, this is only once a year? No this is not [often] enough.”
Now Trap Sushi welcomes hundreds of fellow anime fans to celebrate their love of all things anime and Japanese culture. In the process of hosting Trap Sushi events, Stephanie and Tolden recognized they were serving a major sub-community in fandom as well.
Stephanie noted “Trap Sushi is open to everybody. It’s all inclusive. But we have noticed that the community it really speaks to a lot is the black anime and cosplay community. That’s a whole sub-community to itself that kind of gets overlooked sometimes, and I know that group found a lot of solace in having a place where they can let go and be like ‘ok, here at Trap Sushi we can really get loose and be free.’”
Stephanie and Tolden also recognized they were creating a safe space for younger generations, and though they both dealt with bullying for their love of anime growing up, they know a lot has changed for younger fans.
Stephanie replied, “Nowadays it’s so different because you see how anime has infiltrated American pop culture, and the hip hop community and all these other artists are really into anime and stuff like that. I’ve watched it become a part of American pop culture. It’s very much more accepted.”
Tolden had a full circle moment when he realized through Instagram that Trap Sushi has now become a beacon for fans in Atlanta looking for connections who have yet to find each other in the same way that anime cons have been for others.
Tolden exclaimed “This girl made a post on Instagram and she was like ‘where are all my anime loving girls in the South?’ And it was going crazy! There were so many girls like ‘yo, I’m here!’. One of the girls tagged Trap Sushi and was like ‘If you are in Atlanta you should check out Trap Sushi! I was like wow that’s crazy!”
Of course Trap Sushi is not just about bringing generations together as it is about bringing cultures together, and as the name signifies it’s very East meets West Atlanta meets Japan.
“Trap is like a description word for Atlanta and Sushi is just like a description word for Japan.” Stephanie remarked, “And the whole gist of it is us, fusing Atlanta pop culture and Japanese pop culture all in one.”
Of course one essential element of that is the titular sushi, which became an immediate hit for the attendees.
“Our chef is from Wagaya, which is a Japanese restaurant in midtown,” Stephanie said, “He makes all the sushi live on the spot.”
“And the sushi sells out at every event”, mentioned Tolden.
“The line goes from the sushi table to the front door”, Stephanie replies.
In addition to their venture with Trap Sushi, Stephanie and Tolden also celebrated recent milestones including their marriage, and the birth of their first child.
“We just had one of our baby showers, and some of the people present were those we met at Trap Sushi. So it has really grown into a family dynamic”, Stephanie exclaimed.
“Feels like [hanging out] with my cousin,” remarked Tolden.
The first Trap Sushi event started small, with about 50 to 75 people, but now it’s grown to 1,100 people. Among those they had some early advocates.
“One in particular is CutiePieSensei, and she’s a super dope cosplayer. There’s also this guy named AnimeXSundays, who is an Instagram influencer comedian for anime, and he actually hosts the party. They both have been early advocates who have helped us and rocked with us for a long time,” mentioned Tolden.
Tolden continued, “we have made so many close friends, you know, the people who help us put it on. And when somebody comes to an event, and they keep coming back, you remember faces, you remember names, and it’s like ‘yo, it’s good to see you!’. And some people you may keep in touch with more than others, but when you do see them the fact that when you see them it’s all love, and it’s all good energy and good vibes.”
This is definitely a vibe that many attendees have caught on to and appreciated.
“One of the things somebody told me that I was probably the most proud of” Tolden remarked “is that they came to me and said ‘everybody here is so inviting, and smiling and happy and I will just randomly walk and people are talking to me and showing me love.’ He said ‘you don’t get this type of energy anywhere else in Atlanta.’ That makes me feel good. We’re very open and warm, and we talk to everyone, and that it resonates with the party is great.”
Of course all this growth and success has brought challenges too.
“I didn’t expect the event to grow as quickly as it did,” Stephanie exclaimed. “Usually when you go to events in Atlanta they do not care if you’re waiting in line, but we care because we want you in the party having fun. So we’re trying to figure out how to get these lines to move quicker.”
Cosplay is also a centerpiece of Trap Sushi events as it often true with many anime events.
Stephanie said, “The cosplay competition has kind of always been the focal point of the event because our whole purpose was to pull in as many aspects of Japanese pop culture as possible within the anime realm and cosplay was one of those. So we were like, well, what can we do to highlight that besides just encouraging people to show up? We were like let’s have a competition. And so the winner will get a cash prize. Lately, we’ve been giving up MomoCon tickets for the winners.”
Trap Sushi’s cosplay events organically began to feature dance, and so Stephanie and Tolden found a way to incorporate that into its own category.
Stephanie noted, “we noticed that the first one quickly turned into a dance battle for people, [but for people] who can’t dance it was unfair to them because like their cosplay would technically be better but they couldn’t dance. So [we added a] new category called crowd favorite where those people could win. While the original category winner is the person who had the best cosplay.”
Trap Sushi’s cosplay contests have been a hit; however, they also encountered some surprising challenges with the contests that they had not fully anticipated.
“We had to add rules and regulations.”, Tolden remarks. “In the beginning people tried to bring real weapons so we had to stop that. People were also bringing in real animals as part of their cosplay This girl pauses lifts up her sleeve and there’s a snake…yo that’s a real snake!”
“And it was cool, but a liability”, Stephanie noted.
In addition to the growth of Trap Sushi itself, they both have started to develop more opportunities to grow the brand. Most recently they developed a Trap Sushi zine.
“That was the brainchild of one of our Trap Sushi cousins Eli,” Tolden remarked. Eli works for Adult Swim, and we had always been talking about collaborating on one of the Trap Sushis. He came in and asked if we were interested in collaborating on a zine, and I said ‘oh yeah!’ It was a two and a half month process, including photo shoots at a cool bamboo forest in Atlanta. We interviewed a Japanese photographer who has lived in Atlanta for some time and takes pictures of a lot of the celebrities here. Basically it was a way to highlight all these ‘Trap Sushi’ cousins we meet at the events to showcase their talents, what they do, and where they all come from.”
Of course the root of Trap Sushi is their events, and I was curious if they had an ultimate goal in mind?
“We really want to build up to an actual music and food festival,” Tolden remarked enthusiastically. “[We’d love to] really combine the entertainment aspect of anime and cosplay culture with concerts, holograms, all of that to bring this party, anime convention experience together to be something new and unique. When we build it up to that point I just want it to be new and unique.”
When asked if he could ever see bringing Atlanta culture to Japan, Tolden said “We’re actually planning to go to Japan this year and one of our friends is a member of Soho House, and he asked me if I wanted to do a Trap Sushi in Japan at their Soho House, and I said I’m all for it!”
Returning to the next event, March 23rd’s Trap Sushi, I asked Stephanie and Tolden what new things they have in store?
“We’re going to have live performances at our next event.” Tolden remarked. “There’s a lot of anime people and cosplayers that are also musicians.”
“Like Troop,” Stephanie said, indicating Tolden.
“Yeah, including myself.”, Tolden said. “There will be about 3 or four of us.”
Stephanie said, “We’re continuing to bring more multimedia into the Trap Sushi brand. Music’s such a low hanging fruit for us since Tolden’s an artist. So that’s our next side quest to bring more music into the event. We have awesome DJs, but we are realizing there are even more incredibly talented people around us.”