When Jordan Peele's Get Out hit theaters in 2018, it took audiences by surprise. The world of horror as they had known it was one of fantasy, of Freddie Kruegers and pretty blondes screaming. But Peele flipped the genre on its head, using it to talk about real-world horrors Black Americans face daily. Now, Lovecraft Country (on which Peele serves as an executive producer) is doing something similar. The HBO series juxtaposes fictional monsters with the very real terror of a sheriff pulling over a Black family after dark. If you saw Episode 1 and are shocked the Sundown Towns depicted in Lovecraft Country were real, it's time for a history lesson.
Warning: Spoilers for Lovecraft Country Episode 1 follow. Lovecraft Country's first mention of Sundown Towns — aka towns that exclude and endanger non-white people by only allowing them within their limits during daylight hours — was very matter-of-fact. As Atticus puttered around the apartment at the end of the day, Uncle George spent the evening icing his knees, saying he's lucky they work at all. You see, during a road trip to research his Midwest version of the Green Book travel guide, both of his kneecaps were broken by a white mob who caught him outside of Anna, Illinois.
Anna isn't some made-up place created for the purpose of this scene; it's a real city, founded in 1854 in Union County, near the southern tip of Illinois. Technically, it's named for the city's founder's wife, Anna. But the town name has long had another connotation, as a crude acronym for its white supremacist philosophy: "Ain’t No N****** Allowed."
The city was one of many places to be considered a Sundown Town in the middle of the 20th century. Not only did Sundown Towns not allow Black travelers to stop for food, gas, or restroom breaks if it was after dark, but as Episode 1 of Lovecraft Country makes clear, they could also be extremely dangerous: In many cases, Black travelers were threatened, forcibly removed, and beaten if caught in one of these areas when it wasn't light out.
To this day, former Sundown Towns still exhibit lasting effects of their racist pasts. According to ProPublica, as of 2019, the 4,000-strong population of Anna is almost exclusively white, and relics of the past, like hate speech, are still around. But ever so slowly, that is changing. (For more on the current realities of living in Anna, including what it's like for non-white people, check out the ProPublica investigation in full.)
Sundown Towns illustrate one of Lovecraft Country's main points about racism. It would be one thing if Atticus, Leti, and Uncle George were traveling through the Jim Crow South; the racist societal structures in the former Confederate states in the 1950s is well-covered in media. However, Lovecraft Country is focused on the world north of the Mason-Dixon line. Sundown Towns existed all over the United States — even in the progressive-seeming New England, where Atticus, George, and Leti found themselves racing the setting sun to escape at the end of Episode 1. Lovecraft Country reminds viewers that bigotry doesn't recognize artificially created borders.