The recent past; Tangerine County, Florida
Let's get the easy one out of the way, first: the action place in the recent past, probably in the 1990s. Even though it's never actually specified in the book, you can figure out the date by the lack of cell phones, and the fact that the narrator still feels he has to explain what the Internet is to his readers.
Now, on to the meat (or, er, the fruit?): where does most of the action in Tangerine take place? Why, in Tangerine County, Florida, of course! Which… doesn't actually exist. There is really an Orange County and a Citrus County, though, so you know, tomay-to, tomah-to.
Actually, the story starts out at Paul Fisher's old house in Houston, TX, right as the Fisher fam is moving out. But everything else happens in Tangerine Country—except Paul's flashbacks, which always take him back in time to their old house in Huntsville.
Location, Location, Location
How do we know the location matters? Oh, just the little fact that it's the title of the book. And really, it's all about location in Tangerine.
We start out in Lake Windsor, the housing development where Paul and his family live. Their neighborhood is nestled in among a bunch of other ritzy developments with fancy-sounding names, like the Manors of Coventry, and the Villas at Versailles. Lake Windsor even has its own middle and high school, so, for the first part of the book, the Fisher family's lives revolve around that one area of town. Mrs. Fisher heads up their Home Owner Association Architectural Committee, Erik joins his school's football team, and even Paul makes friends in their neighborhood.
But when Paul is forced to leave Lake Windsor Middle School and go to Tangerine Middle School, he encounters a whole new way of life. The kids aren't as wealthy as the Lake Windsor kids, but Paul ends up fitting in better there than he did in his first school.
When Paul makes friends with Tino and Luis, he starts going out to their tangerine grove. There, he realizes how much of a difference location makes. As he's helping the Cruz family fight the freeze, he remarks: "In Lake Windsor Downs, the people were inside, welcoming the freeze with hot cocoa and fake logs and Christmas CDs. In Tangerine, the people were heading out to fight it with shovels and axes and burning tires" (3.3.118).
Sure, they're fighting the freeze. But the people in Tangerine are much more in tune with nature than the Lake Windsor folks. Lightning doesn't strike them, because they've left the trees on their hills alive to attract it instead. Termites don't bother them, because they built their homes on dirt, not on mounds of plowed-under, burnt-up citrus trees. They accept that the ice will kill some trees, even though they work to save as many as they can.
Where You Play the Game
Location even affects the sports. Paul isn't even allowed to play on the Lake Windsor soccer team because of stuffy insurance restrictions, but he becomes a champion on the scrappy Tangerine team. But on that same team, Shandra Thomas always has to hide her face from outsiders. Why? Because her brother Antoine plays football for Lake Windsor, even though he doesn't live in that district. And when word eventually gets out, it nullifies every victory the Lake Windsor team ever earned.
So yeah, location matters. A lot. Here's what we think: everyone has to find a place where he or she belongs. There's no sense in trying to be something that you aren't by living somewhere you shouldn't. The easy example is Antoine: he belongs in Tangerine.
It gets a little trickier when you think about Mrs. Fisher. Mrs. Fisher loves their housing development, because it represents a wealthy lifestyle she's always wanted. But do the Fishers really belong? Is trying to fit in to the wrong place part of why Erik turns out so badly? Should they really be living over in Tangerine?