The I-85 fire could have destroyed Basil Eleby’s life. Instead, it may have saved it.

When a fire engulfed a portion of I-85 last year, police arrested Basil Eleby for arson. This is what happened after.

Basil Eleby, I-85 fire
The flames caused a span of I-85 to collapse. Miraculously, there were no injuries.

Photograph by WSB-TV via AP

First came the smoke.

The thick black plumes billowed up from under Interstate 85, two miles northeast from where the Downtown Connector splits, blanketing motorists lurching through rush-hour traffic on March 30, 2017. A wedding planner was the first to call 911. It was 6:12 p.m. Eight minutes later, firefighters arrived near the base of the overpass, where they clamped a hose to a hydrant. But the water wasn’t coming out right. Same luck at a second hydrant. A third finally worked. Firefighters hurled water toward the brilliant orange flames that had grown taller than a four-story building, enshrouding a highway now as empty as a scene from The Walking Dead

More engines were en route, including trucks from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport equipped with oxygen-suppressing foam that could smother 2,000-degree flames. (The trucks got stuck in traffic.) Beneath I-85, the fire was fed by spools of plastic and fiberglass conduit stored there. The overpass above was designed to support more than 400 tons, but the immense heat was dissolving the bond between steel and concrete. At 7:14 p.m., nearly an hour after the first firefighters arrived, a 79-by-92-foot segment of the overpass—roughly the size of a basketball court—collapsed.

From the stairwell of the Intown Suites, roughly 200 yards away, Basil Eleby stared into the smoke enveloping I-85. Eleby was 39, an Atlanta native, and homeless. For years, he’d struggled with drugs and alcohol, cycling between life on the streets and in a cell. Eleby preferred his solitude. But when people got to know him, as some owners of the auto repair shops clustered near the southeastern edge of Buckhead had done, he was easy to talk to. Trustworthy, even. They liked him enough to throw him odd jobs—unloading trucks, detailing cars. The owner of GT Automotive even let Eleby use the shop’s bathroom and sleep in a broken-down Mercedes parked out back. Eleby laid blankets down across the rear seat, placing his clothes and toiletries up front. An extension cord stretching from the shop to the car powered Eleby’s microwave and charged his cell phone.

Basil Eleby, I-85 fire
Eleby in front of the Mercedes where he used to sleep

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

As he would tell me, a year after the fire, his days were broken down into a series of “missions,” as he called them. The goals were simple: food, shelter, or just a fix.

That day, a hot Thursday in early spring, had already been a long one for Eleby. Earlier that afternoon, he’d washed cars at a tire shop off Cheshire Bridge Road. Then he hustled over to the Intown Suites, where rooms typically rented for under $200 a week. Intown Suites, which has since closed, was well-known to Atlanta police, who frequently responded to reports of fighting, theft, drugs—even the occasional shooting. When Eleby had first come here, years ago, it was to buy crack. Sometimes he befriended guests, running errands in exchange for a few dollars or some drugs. That afternoon, he’d later tell police, he’d come for work, to walk Panda, a guest’s dog. Soon after the highway fell, he found himself with a third job. Eleby would get $100, plus free cigarettes and alcohol, to make sure a guest, who was planning to go on a bender, didn’t get robbed. After midnight, Eleby walked 10 minutes north on Piedmont Road, past the firefighters, to GT Automotive, and settled into the Mercedes to sleep.

The next morning Eleby headed back to Intown Suites, looking to walk the dog again for another $20. His path took him down an alley toward Tower Liquors. As he cut across the lot, several arson investigators were looking his way. Are you Basil Eleby? they asked. 

The investigators wanted to know what he could tell them about the fire. I don’t know who started it, he said. They asked him if he’d help ID a potential suspect at the station. He slid into the back of a squad car. The windows were rolled down, which Eleby took as a sign he wasn’t in trouble. But as the car moved closer to APD’s Buckhead precinct, he heard a click. He was locked in.

The morning after the highway collapsed, metro Atlanta was forced to reckon with its longstanding ambivalence—and, at times, resistance—toward any form of transportation that wasn’t the automobile. Now, the region skeptical of buses and trains really needed MARTA. Ticket sales almost doubled their daily weekday average. During his morning commute from North Springs to his office at Lindbergh, Keith Parker, the CEO of MARTA, rode in a standing room only train. Parker increased train frequencies to every six to eight minutes, instead of 10, and extended service hours.

School leaders, remembering the images of children stuck on school buses during SnowJam 2014, had already canceled classes to alleviate traffic. Governor Nathan Deal secured $10 million from the White House to kickstart the rebuilding. The public had to be patient, Russell McMurry, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, told reporters. The damage necessitated closing the highway in both directions. The rebuilding of 700 feet of highway—the span that collapsed plus five other segments that were structurally compromised—could take months. The nearly 250,000 vehicles that daily relied on this stretch of highway would have to find another way.

Meanwhile, Atlanta fire investigators and federal agents fanned out to speak with witnesses. None had seen the fire break out. But one man had noticed a homeless couple leaving the spot where the flames had originated. Lt. Jeffrey Cutrer, a city fire investigator, tracked down the couple, Barry Thomas and Sophia Brauer, at a laundromat near the Lindbergh station.

The couple told investigators they had indeed been under a stretch of I-85 just east of where the overpass crosses Piedmont Road, and had actually planned to sleep there the night of the fire. The parcel beneath that tenth-mile portion of the highway was owned by GDOT, which used the space to store unused materials from abandoned projects. At the time of the fire, there were 76 four-feet tall spools of conduit. Here, as under many of Atlanta’s highway overpasses, the homeless ate, drank, and occasionally built fires to stay warm—even though “no trespassing” signs marked the area as off-limits. Parts of it, though, were so poorly fenced off that skaters had poured concrete to build a makeshift skatepark.

At the MARTA police station, Thomas described what he’d seen before the fire: a man hoisting a worn-out recliner into an abandoned Target shopping cart. The man reached under the cart, flicked a lighter, and held the flame until the chair caught on fire. The flames spread to the massive spools. In a different interview room, Brauer described running into the same man in the Lindbergh Kroger parking lot, about a mile north of the overpass. He looked toward the smoke, said “I did that,” and chuckled. When different investigators asked who the man was, Thomas and Brauer separately provided the same person’s name: Basil Eleby. 

About an hour later, investigators were questioning Eleby inside the Atlanta Police’s Buckhead precinct. Eleby said he knew about the spot under I-85. He often walked a path that cut through GDOT’s property to get from the Mercedes to his jobs. The last time he took that route, he told investigators, it was Thursday afternoon, about two hours before the fire. He’d been on his way to walk Panda and had run into Brauer and Thomas. Sitting among the spools, the couple sipped on beers. Eleby hadn’t lingered long, he told police. Within 10 minutes, he had continued on his way to Intown Suites.

Eleby admitted he had smoked crack—he didn’t have enough for Brauer, who asked if he might share—but insisted he left the scene before the fire started. Even after a federal investigator read Eleby his Miranda rights, he kept talking. He didn’t ask for a lawyer. He drew a crude sketch that showed his recollection of the position of the chair and cart. But based on Brauer and Thomas’s statements, police placed Eleby in handcuffs and put him in the back of a squad car. He was headed for Fulton County Jail, a place he knew well.

That weekend, on websites and social media feeds, thousands saw Eleby’s mugshot—his scraggly hair, his black zip-up jacket, his tired eyes. A WSB-TV segment featured an interview with Brauer, blaming the fire on Eleby. From his South Fulton home, Marcus Coleman was dismayed. The founder of the Atlanta chapter of the National Action Network—Rev. Al Sharpton’s civil rights nonprofit—saw a familiar narrative being played out: the vilification of a homeless man. He feared the arrest would embolden officials to displace homeless people camped under highways, or hasten the closing of Atlanta’s largest homeless shelter, Peachtree-Pine, whose operators were locked in a bitter lawsuit against the city. On Facebook, Coleman messaged several attorneys.

“We need to help this Brotha,” Coleman wrote. 

Basil Eleby, I-85 fire
Mawuli Davis (left) and Eleby in Davis’s law office, where Eleby works part-time

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

One of the attorneys, Mawuli Davis, agreed to join Coleman in assembling a legal team that would include three other criminal defense attorneys: Tiffany Roberts, Gary Spencer, and Lawrence Zimmerman. In early April, Roberts visited Eleby in jail. Roberts found him to be calm and courteous, but overwhelmed. Eleby had a long rap sheet: 19 arrests over 22 years, on charges that included selling drugs, criminal trespassing, and urban camping near I-85. His longest stint in jail—six months in the mid-2000s—came after he sold $20 worth of crack to an undercover officer. Now he was facing felony arson and property charges that could put him in prison until he was in his sixties.

Eleby began telling Roberts about his past. When he was seven, his mother had lost custody; he and his three younger siblings moved into their aunt’s two-story apartment in the English Avenue neighborhood. Drug dealers sold crack nearby. His aunt, who struggled with addiction, bought drugs with money sent by his mother. Eleby spent time in foster care. After his mother regained custody, they moved to Kimberly Courts, a public housing development in southwest Atlanta. The family bounced from house to house, and Eleby never got a high school diploma. When he was 20, a coworker at Wendy’s asked if he wanted to smoke weed after work. Eleby said yes. Other drugs followed, including cocaine. He started selling drugs to pay for his habit. The only times he could stay sober for more than a week was whenever he landed back in jail.

On Good Friday, two weeks after the fire, Eleby’s attorneys arrived for a press conference on the Fulton County courthouse steps. Davis declared Eleby’s arrest a “railroading on steroids.” A group of attorneys and activists urged the public to call a 1-800 number with tips, to purchase $24 Basil Eleby T-shirts to fund his defense, and to pack the courtroom for his bond hearing. Five days later, his lawyers secured Eleby’s release on a $10,000 signature bond, which allows a defendant to be released from jail without putting up any cash. There were conditions: no arrests, no drugs, no witness contact. And he couldn’t set foot within a thousand feet of the I-85 bridge without a lawyer, cutting off Eleby from his old life, including the car where he slept.

The attorneys were the first of dozens of Good Samaritans who would step up to help Eleby, providing the kind of wraparound service that would be the envy of even the most progressive cities. Their efforts also revealed the limits of that kind of approach—that no matter how aggressive and nurturing the efforts, their outcome would ultimately depend on Eleby and Eleby alone. His most immediate need was a roof over his head, which came via a friend of Davis’s, who operated a sober-living residence just south of I-285. Eleby joined seven other residents, who shared everything from the kitchen utensils to copies of the “Big Book,” the Bible for 12-step recovery programs. Eleby was required to wake up at 6:30 a.m. on weekdays, tidying his room and doing chores, such as cleaning the bathroom or wiping down the kitchen. A security camera hung above the front door to document residents’ comings and goings. The counselor who oversaw the treatment facility, a man by the name of Original Michael, had himself overcome drug addiction, and knew how hard it was to break free of crack’s grip.

Eleby’s old routines, scheduled around his next fix, were now gone. His personal relationships, built around the rituals of drug use, were gone. His independence, restricted by the terms of his bond, was effectively gone. Eleby’s recovery hinged on rewiring his very existence. Michael agreed to cover all of Eleby’s healthcare costs and to navigate him through the process of recovery: a psychiatrist (who would diagnose Eleby with PTSD), individual and group counseling, and 12-step meetings. For Eleby, the stakes couldn’t be higher; a relapse could send him to prison.

Russell McMurry, the GDOT commissioner who’d spent decades climbing the agency’s ranks, circled on his calendar the most important day of his career: June 15, 2017. That’s when he had promised to reopen the 10-lane highway. Along the way, workers would have to clear 13 million pounds of debris, fabricate 250 tons of steel, and pour 2,100 cubic yards of concrete. Officials estimated the 250,000 inconvenienced motorists would collectively lose more than half-a-million dollars each day that I-85 remained closed. An Invest Atlanta survey of businesses within a 10-minute drive of the fire site found that more than half lost customers, faced longer delivery times, and had to allow for workers who couldn’t get to their jobs on time. 

Within an hour of the highway collapse, GDOT had retained C.W. Matthews, the Marietta-based construction giant. C.W. Matthews is one of most politically connected firms statewide, completing more than $2 billion in business with the agency since 2008. By the next day, C.W. Matthews had shifted dozens of workers from other projects to focus on the overpass rebuild. They subcontracted with D.H. Griffin, a North Carolina–based demolition company, which helped clear the World Trade Center’s rubble after 9/11, to remove the six damaged spans. In early April, GDOT sweetened the pot: If C.W. Matthews finished by May 15, a month ahead of the date McMurry promised the public, it would get a bonus of $3.1 million. Crews worked around the clock. The total costs would climb to nearly $17 million. 

Engineers ordered 61 beams made of pre-stressed concrete with steel reinforcement, each a different length given the curve of the highway. Within two weeks of the fire, state troopers began escorting a cavalcade of trucks hauling the beams, from plants as far away as Savannah, to the construction site. Cranes lifted the beams, some weighing 120 tons, more than two stories into the sky before gently positioning them. In typical highway building, pouring this much concrete would take 28 days to dry—called ‘curing’—but engineers opted instead for a more expensive composite containing a finer cut of cement, allowing it to cure in approximately 28 hours.

On Friday, May 12, six weeks after the bridge collapsed, GDOT inspectors gave the all-clear. During that evening’s rush hour, as cars crawled along the Downtown Connector, workers tossed the last orange construction cones into the back of a GDOT truck. TV stations streamed live coverage of the highway reopening. With their lights flashing, APD officers steered their blue cruisers north on I-85 toward the rebuilt spans. Around 7 p.m., drivers picked up speed and crossed the overpass, as if it were just another rush hour.

One sweltering Wednesday night in late July, 10 weeks after the highway reopened, Eleby stepped inside Sankofa United Church of Christ, the West End congregation that had supported him since his release. Just a few days earlier, Eleby had relapsed for the first time since the fire, ending a nearly four-month stretch of sobriety. Though relapse is a medical setback common among patients in addiction treatment, his lawyers worried his bond might nevertheless be revoked, further damaging the public perception of him ahead of a trial. Davis had asked the church’s pastor, Derrick Rice, to convene everyone who expressed support for Eleby after the fire. Now, three dozen people had assembled there for a single goal: shower Eleby with love until he could love himself again.

The following month, volunteers bought Eleby groceries and a MARTA card so he could get back and forth from the recovery house to his treatment. Eleby hadn’t had a license for at least six years, so volunteers drove Eleby not only to his many appointments, but to everyday places like libraries, parks, and restaurants. Eleby went on hikes with several health advocates who preached to him about self-care. He attended services at a mosque with Reginald Muhammad, the legal investigator whom Davis had assigned to mentor Eleby. The constant companionship wore on Eleby, who began to see his caretakers as probation officers. He wasn’t wrong: Ken Love, a Sankofa member who coordinated Eleby’s schedule, tracked his movements with an app on his phone.

“I shouldn’t be here, with all the drugs I was doing. I shouldn’t be coherent. I shouldn’t be healthy.”

In late September, Eleby didn’t show for a church event. Love checked his app. Eleby’s cell phone appeared to be off. Love drove around to spots where Eleby said he might go if he were to relapse, including Intown Suites. When Love pulled up, he saw people using and selling drugs, but no Eleby.

Eleby resurfaced the next day. Not long after, he failed a drug test, confirmation of another relapse. At his next court hearing, Judge Constance Russell ordered Eleby to take another drug test. It came back negative. Russell allowed Eleby to stay in treatment, but it was his last chance: “If you flunk a drug test again,” she warned, “your bond will be revoked.”

Just as some had wondered if the I-85 collapse might be a wake-up call to invest more in transit, Mawuli Davis thought Eleby’s story might be an opportunity for the city to confront its checkered history with homelessness. Leading up to the 1996 Olympics, Fulton County officials famously bought homeless people one-way bus tickets out of town, while Atlanta police faced a lawsuit for overaggressive policing of people sleeping on the streets. In the years that followed, mayors shaped their homelessness agendas to capture more federal funding. Mayor Shirley Franklin embraced a strategy that required the homeless to work or stay off drugs before getting shelter; Mayor Kasim Reed, on the other hand, adopted a “housing first” approach that sheltered people first before addressing their employment or medical concerns.

For Davis, the mission was also personal. In 2015, his older brother, Nate, had died at 56, following a decades-long struggle with substance abuse and depression. “I couldn’t save my brother,” Davis told me. “I decided to save another brother.” But despite his hopes that Eleby’s eventual recovery would lead to greater investment in services, homeless citizens seemed even more in the crosshairs, as Coleman had feared. In August, three months after I-85 reopened, Central Atlanta Progress, the civic group that represented downtown business interests, purchased the building that housed Peachtree-Pine for $10 million—a deal that both settled a longstanding lawsuit with the city’s largest emergency homeless shelter and forced its closure. That fall, APD began actively discouraging church and service groups from feeding homeless people without permits. That winter, authorities stopped allowing the homeless to sleep in the atrium of the Atlanta airport—a warm, safe public space that was accessible via MARTA. For his part, Davis, named a member of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s transition team, still hoped Eleby might someday exemplify what happened when Atlanta prioritized building people rather than building buildings.

That, of course, started with Eleby’s defense. Though it wasn’t admissible in court, Eleby had passed a polygraph test. Looking at police records, Davis felt the state’s case was flimsy: no surveillance footage placed Eleby at the scene of I-85’s collapse; investigators had built a case based on the account of a drug user whose criminal trespassing charge had been dropped after she named Eleby. During discovery, the legal team obtained a $258,600 invoice for the construction materials, including conduit that was combustible if exposed to high heat, that had been stored under I-85 since 2012. A federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives report showed the fence around the spools had a hole wide enough for a person to pass through. No matter how the fire was sparked, Davis reasoned, the highway wouldn’t have collapsed if the materials had been stored elsewhere.

Davis thought he could win a jury trial. They’d found a witness who could vouch for Eleby’s alibi on the night of the fire. Prosecutors, for their part, hadn’t objected to Eleby remaining in addiction treatment after his relapses. But his lawyers felt he might be a strong candidate for one of Fulton’s accountability courts, an alternative sentencing program that offers supervised addiction and mental health treatment for 18 months. “Basil needed treatment,” said Lawrence Zimmerman, one of his lawyers. “If the case got dismissed, he wasn’t going to get treatment.” His lawyers and prosecutors struck a deal: If he graduated from the program, the charges would be dropped. But if he didn’t, he’d again be looking at prison time.

On a snowy Friday in December, Eleby straightened his donated red tie, slipped on his coat, and got a ride to the courthouse from Reginald Muhammad, the legal investigator at Davis’s firm. “Go forth and do well,” Judge Russell told Eleby. “Don’t let me read about you.” Outside the courthouse, Eleby urged reporters to focus on those “who still are where I was, out in the cold and out in the rain, and they feel that they just don’t have no way out.”

One morning shortly after Christmas, Muhammad drove to the sober-living house to find out why Eleby had missed the last bus home from the College Park station the night before. He had relapsed again. Muhammad urged Eleby to remember everything at stake, the people counting on his recovery, everybody he could potentially help if he stayed sober. You’re taking the easy way out if you go back to drugs, Muhammad told him. You’ve got to take part in the fight, too.

The week after his third relapse, I drove out to meet Eleby at the Davis Bozeman law offices near the Gallery at South DeKalb mall. I was intrigued by the notion that a fire that could have destroyed his life might now turn out to be his salvation. When I asked what he hoped for, five years from now, he listed four things: a bank account, a truck, a place of his own, and a girlfriend who was also drug-free.

One day in early 2018, we drove around southwest Atlanta, where he showed me where Kimberly Courts had stood before its demolition. It was there, Eleby explained, that he was thrust into being the oldest man of the house, at the age of seven, because his father was absent. We drove past the old site of Job Corps—a free federal vocational training program for young adults ages 16 to 24—where he once aspired to learn electrical engineering, something he had dreamed of as a teenager when he took apart his Walkman to see how it worked. But, he said, he got kicked out for fighting, even though he said he was trying to defend another student who was getting picked on.

Eleby felt the early-life traumas he endured forced him to be self-reliant, but also self-destructive. Perhaps now, though, the things that once seemed unattainable could actually be his if he committed to a sober lifestyle. Maybe the acts of love—the countless car rides, the late-night phone calls, the genuine acceptance at community events—no longer seemed an act.

“I had to create a new me,” Eleby said. As he stepped out of his comfort zone, leaving behind the solitude of his old world, he inched toward doing “normal, everyday things that normal people do.” Instead of going through the motions of recovery, sitting quietly in group counseling sessions, he opened up. Instead of treating human interactions as transactional—taking what he needed to survive on the streets—he asked how people were doing, expressed gratitude, and volunteered for the causes of people who had helped him. He began reading Malcolm X speeches, Elijah Muhammad’s Message to the Blackman in America. Looking at his reflection in the mirror, he’d say out loud: I love myself. I forgive myself.

But the entire process of rebuilding his life moved slowly. Simple tasks like getting a social security card—a requirement to get into his job-training program—could take most of a full day without a car. While he had developed trust with male mentors, he struggled to make meaningful connections with women he liked without the aid of alcohol or drugs. In one of his treatment groups, he befriended a woman. He worked up the courage to invite her to a formal gala. Eleby was all smiles that night, posing for photos with her. But her own struggles—trying to stay sober while tending to her children’s needs—forced her to postpone a second date. In the past, that kind of disappointment might have triggered Eleby to relapse. But he was practicing the art of patience.

“I shouldn’t be here, with all the drugs I was doing,” Eleby told me. “I shouldn’t be coherent. I shouldn’t be healthy. I should be real messed up—well, I mean, I’m still a little bit crazy from the effects. They’re starting to dissipate day by day. I’m coming back more every day.”

One Friday in April, I met Eleby again at Davis’s law firm, where he was organizing old case files, on the payroll. It had been a year since the fire. Since then, he had followed up on job offers, ones from a clothing store and a construction firm, but the weekly demands of accountability court conflicted with regular hours required for those jobs. Now, for $10 an hour, he was getting assignments no one had bothered to tackle in years. He pulled apart the stacks of boxes, deconstructing the disorder, before putting it back together in an orderly fashion.

A few minutes before 6 p.m., Eleby lugged a few last boxes down to Davis’s Lexus and took me up on my offer for a ride back to Atlanta. As we drove west on I-285, he shared with me some of his smaller victories over the past several months. He had finished a round of court-mandated treatment, started working out at a gym, and detailed cars again on the side. 

But despite his progress, he acknowledged, the work would never end. At our destination off Moreland Avenue, he thanked me for the ride, unbuckled his belt, and opened the car door. He walked across the lot, waved to a familiar face, and headed inside for the evening’s 12-step recovery meeting.

Elaine Chao, the U.S. secretary of transportation, called the swift repair of I-85 a “marvel of dedication.” The Atlanta Regional Commission gave engineers an “unsung heroes” award. The Braves presented a framed No. 85 “C.W. Matthews” jersey before a game. Georgia Trend named McMurry “Georgian of the Year.” The state transportation board approved a six-figure raise that increased the commissioner’s salary to $350,000—more than double that of Governor Deal’s.

MARTA’s importance was acknowledged, too: Deal committed $100 million in state money to four MARTA bus interchanges along Ga. 400—a fraction of the $1.8 billion devoted to the highway’s broader expansion. State lawmakers continued to pass on funding rail expansion. Parker, the optimistic transit chief who had hoped to retain those new customers after I-85 reopened, watched ridership revert to the steady decline it had seen since 2002. Late last year, he departed from MARTA, a blow to transit advocates who have struggled to win widespread support for rail expansion along the entire Atlanta BeltLine. The true test of MARTA’s future growth—a referendum next March to bring rail to Gwinnett County—still hangs in the balance.

Similarly, homeless activists like Coleman and Davis never saw their hopes fully materialize. Mayor Reed, along with the United Way’s Regional Commission on Homelessness, pledged to invest $50 million to make homelessness “rare, brief, and nonrecurring” by offering temporary housing and services. That announcement, followed by a city estimate that Atlanta’s homeless population within shelters had dropped to just around 3,000, offered hope that people who were connected to services would break the cycle of homelessness. But a closer look into those figures is disconcerting: The number of people living outside of shelters has actually gone up. Homeless citizens still camp in plain sight, though authorities conduct occasional sweeps under bridges and highways, periodically directing them to services. The Bottoms administration has created One Atlanta—a city office tasked with recommending policies on issues such as homelessness—but has yet to announce major initiatives. 

This spring, the National Transportation and Safety Board concluded that GDOT had neglected the risk of a fire underneath one of Atlanta’s major highways. Even if someone had started a small fire, the report found, GDOT’s construction materials provided fuel for a catastrophe. No individual state employee was ever held responsible for the decision. New state policy is to no longer store construction material under highways.

Basil Eleby, I-85 fire
Basil Eleby

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

One morning in August, Eleby took a final drag on a Newport, flicked the butt toward the street, and grabbed his belongings. The night before, he had packed everything he owned into a mismatched set of backpacks and briefcases. Now, in the light of morning, he slung a pile of donated suits on hangers over his shoulder, walked out the front door of his treatment house, and placed them in Original Michael’s Buick. Eleby was about to end one chapter of his recovery, the one where he achieved the longest stretch of sobriety in his adult life, and enter another chapter, one with greater rewards—and risks.

Near downtown East Point, Michael turned left down a long driveway toward four squat red brick buildings. Michael had secured a scholarship for free transitional housing at Keep It Simple House—a new apartment complex he described as “for addicts, by addicts, that aren’t just addicts.” Like the rest of the 30 or so tenants, Eleby would need to pass routine drug tests and attend a weekly meeting on Sunday nights. But he’d get his own room and could go about his day without checking in with anyone else, so long as he was home by 10 o’clock each evening.

Already that summer, Eleby had taken small steps to prepare for this move toward independence. He completed the first six months of his 18-month treatment program for accountability court. Not only was he working at Davis’s law firm, he was training to become a certified forklift operator, and also had his sights on a driver’s license. Eleby was considering an offer from Michael to get trained as a peer recovery support specialist, coaching others through the early days of sobriety.

The week after July 4, his mother had died suddenly. Instead of seeking out drugs to numb his grief, he found comfort knowing her funeral had brought his brothers and sisters closer together, following years of estrangement that had sprung from his addiction.

When Eleby opened the door to apartment 20, he found a furnished two-bedroom unit with a kitchen, living room, and patio. It was his first apartment in over a decade. He unpacked his bags, filled his closet with shoes and suits, and folded his shirts. He spotted the black zip-up jacket he’d been wearing after his arrest. When he had packed it, memories flooded back of all the risks he took in it to buy crack and get high. He didn’t want to wear it again for a while. But he didn’t want to throw it out, either. Instead, he folded it neatly and set it near his other clothes. There it would stay—a reminder of how far he’d come, and how far he still had to go.

This article appears in our November 2018 issue under the headline “The Fire and Everything After.”