Of course, Twon wasn’t selling water. Not really. The water is incidental. Water boys sell forgiveness.
The 17-year-old—Twon’s not his real name—was on a street corner in Vine City in May, hawking Gatorade and Dasani from a plastic cooler because there was no food in the fridge at home and no faster way to put some there. A driver thought they were being generous and handed out an extra $20 for a bottle.
It happens all the time. Nobility is the point: No one driving down a rough Atlanta road in the middle of a May afternoon really needs a bottle of water at a stoplight. A stoplight isn’t the place for deep contemplation about useful charity. We rarely think about how our charity can turn toxic, even under the best of circumstances.
America doesn’t respect beggars, but we say we respect the hustle. Work like hell, right? Stay in school. Don’t do drugs. Follow the law. Show initiative. Take smart risks. Do these things, and you will be rewarded in proportion to your wit and industry, even if others are starting out with greater advantages. These are the meritocratic imperatives, the virtues leading to wealth, or at least a decent life. Or so we tell ourselves.
And then we see three or four lean Black kids on a cheap blue plastic cooler in the median with half a rack of Aquafina who call us liars as we drive by Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
About 35,000 cars drive past the stadium down Northside Drive every day. Black kids selling water make despair in the poor neighborhoods near the gleaming stadium become visible, if just for a second. The water boys try to make eye contact. We don’t want to look at them. We don’t want to not look at them. We also don’t want to look like we’re not looking at them. Enterprising water salesmen make themselves hard to ignore. It’s part of the transaction, the moment of confrontation—not with them, exactly, but with our own values.
We don’t want to think about Atlanta, this dreamland for young Black professionals, turning children into the street like they’re orphans selling Chiclets outside a Tijuana dive bar. It makes our own successes feel arbitrary when we see someone the world has failed. The willingness of these children to endure hazards when they have nothing shames us. To those who feel this shame, water boys offer absolution for the sin of having enough. A bottle of water is the price of eye contact.
It’s not that 20 bucks is a lot of money. But who gets a cut? A $20 bill reminds an impatient kid with bone-deep resentment of how little he has. For a child who has nothing but a gun and a grudge, 20 bucks is enough to start a fight.
Words led to guns drawn. Twon wasn’t armed, but he still caught a bullet in the leg. The other kids took off. A cop fished a Walther 9-mil out of a storm drain later.
I heard the shooter got a job at a Wendy’s before getting caught by the cops.
Twon won’t talk to the detectives because kids who snitch don’t live happy lives on the street. He’s trying out for football instead.
• • •
At the very moment nurses wheeled Twon into surgery at Grady the morning after he was shot, Keisha Lance Bottoms walked up to a bank of microphones at Atlanta City Hall to tell the world she was done.
The mayor never really gave a clear reason why she wasn’t running for reelection, but I stood there with the rest of the press pool and we all knew. Three times a day, somebody in Atlanta was getting shot. Three times a week, someone got killed. Bottoms was going to lose to anyone who could say “I will keep your children safe” with a straight face, no matter how outrageous that lie might be. Crime murdered Bottoms’s political career.
While former Mayor Kasim Reed’s posturing on crime never seemed to overcome accusations about Reed’s own behavior, the 2021 mayoral and city council campaigns centered on crime. Candidates up and down the ballot claimed to have a plan to increase police numbers, as though recruiting cops in this environment is a matter of political will. Most emphasized immediate action.
But the explosion of violence we see is a product of long-term problems that cannot be solved in a 100-day window—a hard case to make to voters regularly bombarded with social media accounts of shootings and carjackings. Atlanta’s conversation about crime skims the surface of what’s going on. It’s driven by headlines and body counts, 30-second TV clips of Black mugshots and yellow crime tape, toxic posts on Nextdoor.
As afraid as the public seems to be of crime, the political establishment of the city seems just as afraid to confront it. Atlanta’s leaders have been hearing about urban crime from white conservatives for decades, as though cities haven’t always had higher crime than other places, including ones with white majorities. With the political balance on knife’s edge, Atlanta doesn’t want to give ammunition to opportunists.
And yet, even in demurral, Bottoms eloquently described the despair driving violence in the city.
“What we are talking about are . . . poor people who can’t pay $200 to get out of jail and then lose their job because they can’t pay their car note and then they get into trouble because they can’t pay their child support,” she said at the press conference. “I still believe that the systemic issues that are leading to people making poor decisions [have] everything to do with us not having the ability to offer people resources. . . . It’s about people having a physical place they can walk into to say, I need help. I need a job. I need GED training. I need daycare for my child because I don’t work 9 to 5—I work 11 to 7.”
In that moment, something clicked for me. Bottoms clearly understands the state of despair of a hundred thousand impoverished people in Atlanta, and how that drives crime. It’s not that she can’t describe it. It’s that she can’t make it seen.
Most people are still trying to avoid eye contact with the problem.
• • •
I understand why people avoid this stuff. To see it fully is to see an apparent abyss of unending misery that demands to be satisfied. Poverty makes us feel bad. So, we don’t look. We deflect. It’s safer.
It is easier for many of us to believe that violence has increased because the police have, somehow, become more dysfunctional over the last two years. Belief in policing über alles requires neither introspection nor empathy. The idea that society itself has become more dysfunctional, or that Atlanta in particular was more vulnerable because of its social conditions, goes unconsidered.
For those who frame the problem this way, the answer is—must be—to hire more police, and to let them crack heads without complaint, Black Lives Matter be damned.
Let us subject that idea to a little rigor, shall we?
The city of Atlanta has about 1,700 police officers in uniform today, or about one for every 300 residents. When considering the dozen other police agencies in Atlanta—state patrol, sheriff’s deputies, Georgia State University police, school police, ATF and DEA agents, the U.S. Marshals office, and others—Atlanta has one of the largest per capita police presences in America. Many cities of Atlanta’s size or larger have proportionately fewer police and lower crime rates: San Antonio, Honolulu, Louisville, Boston.
To be clear: The ratio of city police to residents has fallen in Atlanta over the last eight years. Atlanta’s population has risen by about 75,000 since 2013; the number of police fell about 350 officers over the same period. But while Atlanta lost about 45 cops per year between 2013 and 2019, the number of violent crimes was also falling—by about 400 annually, according to numbers the city gave to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. If police staffing shortages can explain why violent crime is increasing, why was crime decreasing while officers were quitting?
The answer is often another deflection: an argument without evidence that police had somehow been freer to act or better supported in the past.
Compared to overall police interactions, use of force by the Atlanta Police Department has been a rounding error since the dissolution of Atlanta’s “Red Dog” unit in the wake of the Kathryn Johnston shooting scandal in 2006. Atlanta’s hyperaggressive drug-enforcement team killed a 92-year-old woman in her house after an informant lied about buying cocaine there to get them a no-knock warrant; then, they planted marijuana in the house to cover their crime. Atlanta overhauled its policing practices in response to public outcry.
Reported drug crime fell in Atlanta after city hall disbanded the unit. Arrests fell, as did overdoses, reported use, and the proportion of prisoners with drug problems.
Okay. Let’s consider the public reaction to the death of Rayshard Brooks at the hands of Atlanta police last year. I pulled 911 call records for the two months before and after Brooks’s death and compared it to 2019 figures over the same period. Call volume fell off a cliff the day after protests began, dropping 37 percent. People voted their distrust of police with their cellphones.
A few days later, officer Garrett Rolfe was charged with murder in the Brooks case. Around 7 p.m., people started messaging me to say that police had walked off the job. I started listening to the radio dispatch, to hear 911 operators pleading for police units to respond, with long stretches of silence in between. The cops had caught the “blue flu.”
Armed vigilantes had taken over the site of the Brooks shooting, and two-thirds of the city’s beat cops had withdrawn from work. The two groups effectively held the city hostage to their political interests, each pulling at the opposite end of the rope.
Frankly, everyone—the cops, the public, and city hall—is still pissed at each other, even now. Police hardliners point to this break as the most substantial cause for increasing violent crime, if not the sole reason.
In response, I direct people to the police department’s crime statistics page, which shows the increase in violent crime in 2020 beginning in mid-May, almost a month before Brooks’s death. The timing of the increase looks like stress caused by the first missed rent payments after mass layoffs began in April. Homicides and other violent crime had been below the 2019 pace until May. Over the course of about six weeks, the crime rates ticked up from 12 percent below the 2019 year-to-date average to more than 25 percent above it.
It’s not that people were being formally evicted; eviction filings in Fulton County cratered with the start of the eviction moratorium in April. It’s that the threats from informal obligations borne by very poor people would have started right about then. You don’t evict someone crashing on your couch with a legal notice if renting the room is illegal. You tell them either to get out or get their ass kicked.
• • •
Poverty means using Cash App instead of a direct bank deposit because you need to keep the IRS from collecting taxes and creditors from knowing how to garnish your wages. Poverty means using the self-checkout at Kroger because no one will notice the can of Beefaroni you didn’t scan. Poverty means the first picture someone sees when they Google your name is a seven-year-old mugshot you can’t shake from something stupid. Poverty means a street name keeps cops from finding you without help.
Poverty means buying fake pay stubs from a friend of a friend to lease a place. Poverty means paying someone for their spare bedroom because you can’t get a lease in your own name. Poverty means your kid is on her third school this year because you have to chase apartment move-in specials. Poverty means half the kids in her class are in the same situation. Poverty, as John Scalzi once wrote, means hoping the toothache goes away.
Poverty means watching Twon sell water on the corner of Boone and Lowery and wondering how much more money he made than you did today.
Distress and despair make for bad decisions. But everyone doesn’t give in to distress and despair. I spoke with Volkan Topalli, a Georgia State professor of criminology who engages in ethnographic crime research about the formative psychology of criminal activity. Basically, he goes into the street, finds people who are about to commit crimes, and asks them what they’re thinking.
“If you look at the number of people actually committing crime in any given city, it’s a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of people,” he said. “About 0.3 percent of the population is responsible for something like 75 to 80 percent of all the arrests. So, what that means is that the big blanket solutions are not really the way to go. You really want to focus on particular individuals in particular kinds of places.”
The desperate people Topalli looks at have been cut off from the rest of society—by drugs or mental illness, by deeply dysfunctional relationships, by criminal records and more. They’re caught in a cycle of desperate hedonism. They think they’re going to die, so nothing really matters.
“Some of them understandably believe that, because they’ve seen people dying young all around them all their lives,” Topalli said. “And so, they want to party; they want to have a good time right now, here, today; they want to spend money as quickly as they can. . . . Well, they don’t have a job. They can’t borrow it. What do they do? They engage in predatory crime.”
When one person in this state of mind preys upon another thinking the same thing, someone dies.
• • •
Atlanta is supremely unequal.
An analysis by the Brookings Institution showed that the top 5 percent of Atlanta households earned more than $300,000 per year, while the bottom 20 percent claimed household earnings of $17,000 or less. Brookings has repeatedly ranked Atlanta as the city with America’s greatest income inequality. Atlanta has a Gini coefficient—a common measure of wealth inequality—higher than Caracas or São Paulo, places where the affluent have to travel in armored convoys.
And yet, aspirants flock to Atlanta seeking opportunity. Metro Atlanta receives about 75,000 newcomers every year. Eight thousand of them move to the city itself. And about 1,000 of them are Black, drawn by Real Housewives, rap star bling, and a sense of the city as a land of opportunity for Black people: the Black Mecca.
Only about 40,000 of Atlanta’s 500,000 residents are Latinx, Asian, or multiracial. The defining racial divide remains Black and white. The city of Atlanta is distinct from the region in this regard: Metro Atlanta has comparatively become a cornucopia of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. Suburban Atlanta is also, surprisingly, less unequal than the city itself.
Atlanta’s reality doesn’t match the hype. About 30 percent of Black households live in poverty here, while just 8 percent of white households do. The median income for a white household in Atlanta is about $103,000, according to 2019 American Community Survey data. For a Black household, it is about $35,000.
No white-majority census tract in Atlanta is low-income; half of the city’s white population lives in Buckhead. Lenox Mall, the beating heart of Buckhead, is a monument to Atlanta’s stark wealth divide, filled with symbols of affluence that poor Black kids can look at but not touch.
Those who can afford to shop for Gucci at Lenox by and large do not see the anguish of others trying to survive on a Social Security disability payment of about $800 a month. They do not live near the poor. They do not work with the poor. They do not go to the same schools, or churches, or supermarkets.
Atlanta has the second-lowest economic mobility rate in the country, as well: Born in the bottom decile of income, your chances of making it into the top quintile in Atlanta are about 4 percent.
Atlanta has about 82,000 school-age children. A little over a third attend private schools. Of the 50,000 or so kids enrolled in public school, about 3,000 are technically homeless at any given moment. About 86 percent of homeless people in Atlanta are Black, possibly the most racially defined homelessness problem in America.
Black people here have been told that hustle leads to success in a city where that’s less likely to be true than most places. They have their noses pressed against the glass at Lenox Mall, perhaps spending money they do not have there on things they hope might give them the class markers they need to win a seat at the table.
Then, they drive by Twon hawking Dasani in the median on the way home.
These are the conditions of desperation. The pandemic did not create these conditions. The pandemic amplified them.
• • •
Even before the pandemic, Atlanta’s inequality was beginning to look like—and feel like—late 18th century Revolutionary France. At least 15,000 people live in substandard housing: doubled up with relatives, flopping in an unregulated rooming house or on someone’s couch for $150 a week, or sleeping in their car. One out of six households had an eviction filing in the two years before the start of the pandemic.
As the pandemic began and service-industry jobs disappeared, suddenly about half the city’s tenants couldn’t pay rent. An eviction moratorium—if you were informed enough to understand it and aware enough to assert it—only covered nonpayment of rent. Tenants still got kicked out for other violations of their leases. Once spooned out of an apartment, most tenants who had stopped paying weren’t going to be able to find a new landlord—not without usurious security deposits that almost no one struggling like this can produce.
Start with stress, then take away places someone can run from a dangerous relationship. Add the risk of homelessness. The result is a 30 percent increase in domestic violence that began with the start of the pandemic and persists today, according to APD reports.
About 900 people have been shot in Atlanta over the last 12 months, and more than half knew their attacker, according to APD figures. People aren’t being shot by robbers, generally; robberies have actually fallen by about 20 percent during the pandemic. The ratio of homicides to aggravated assaults has risen. People are, somehow, getting better at killing one another.
Atlanta’s crime increase is among the highest in the country because Atlanta was more broken than other places before the pandemic started. It plays out on the street, at the nightclubs gravid with Atlanta hustle.
None of these places should have been open during the pandemic, of course. Atlanta reopened its bars early on, following orders given by Governor Brian Kemp over strenuous objections by everyone with sense. The city’s own mechanisms for shutting down a club lay broken from years of neglect.
So, the rest of the country turned Atlanta into America’s pandemic club town. Cheap flights and cheaper hotel rooms staged Atlanta streets like a scene from a Fast & Furious film. The neighborhood watch downtown took to counting cars with out-of-state plates in hotel parking lots, just to drive the point home.
Since the pandemic began, the city has had about 70 “excess” murders over the prepandemic baseline, with the uptick starting in the third week of May 2020. At least 25 of those deaths have been within yards of sketchy clubs, in parking lots where security won’t frisk people, the result of street beef mixed with alcohol and guns. Murders in or connected to the city’s hookah bars, underground clubs, and other nightlife account for a bit less than a third of the increase in homicides.
Fun fact: Almost none of the people getting killed are white.
The victims of this violence are almost exclusively Atlanta’s Black underclass. Of the 139 murders the city experienced in the first 10 months or so of 2021, only five were of white people. The city buried 82 Black bodies before its first white homicide victim: Midtown bartender Katie Janness.
Janness was stabbed to death along with her dog in a murder that has the hallmarks of a crime of emotion—a hate crime, perhaps, because she was a lesbian. Maybe that justifies the shift in tone: Janness’s murder rated a press conference by the mayor, blanket coverage on every television station in town, and stories in newspapers across the country. But the way her death was discussed stands in contrast to the coverage of the otherwise invisible Black men who have died this year. And it allows a monstrous lie to propagate: that everyone should be afraid because crime is rising.
Everyone in Atlanta does not share an equal risk of violence. Hell, every Black person does not share an equal risk. Poverty in Atlanta is overwhelmingly Black, and thus the victims of crime are also almost exclusively Black, but the concerns of middle-class and affluent Black people here have less in common with the Black underclass than they do with white people in Buckhead and Midtown.
White people in Atlanta are less likely to be murdered within Atlanta’s city limits than they are outside of Atlanta. The national homicide rate for white victims is about 3 per 100,000. As cynical and macabre as this may be to say, five white Atlantans murdered in 10 months is slightly below par for the size of the city’s white population.
The reason so few white people are victimized here relative to the rest of the country is simple: Few white Atlantans are poor.
But we will not make eye contact with that problem.
• • •
I spent an evening at the clubs on Edgewood Avenue on the Fourth of July.
Edgewood on the best of days is the anti-Lenox, the epicenter of Atlanta hustle. Everyone has a story. Everyone has a plan. Everyone is selling something. Edgewood offers cannabis edibles sold by a girl with a friendly voice from the passenger seat of a parked car with out-of-state plates. Edgewood offers you an aspiring rapper talking casually about the street fight he got into a few days ago, before inviting you to his spoken-word performance. Edgewood offers a peek at a guerrilla photo shoot with two women in clothes you’d have to paint on to wear, on the sidewalk next to the water station the restaurants set up for neighborhood residents experiencing homelessness. Edgewood offers a chance encounter with a troubled woman you’ve known for years, still unhoused but no longer cocaine-frail because of the open food closet next to that water station.
“There’s always shit going on on Edgewood,” a biker named Amos told me as we were hanging with his crew. “Right now, all of us . . .” He didn’t finish the sentence. He just lifted his shirt to expose a handgun. They all did, like it was nothing, like showing off a tattoo or comparing business cards.
We couldn’t have been 50 feet from two parked police cars. Edgewood was awash in cops. But two hours later, in the lot across the street, someone shot Keon Yarber dead in a parked car.
Yarber was an attractive bartender for a while at the Hookah Hideaway and the rapper 2 Chainz’s place, Escobar, before trying to relaunch a music career and to start a shoe-customizing company. It’s a common trajectory in Atlanta for young Black men. He had a straight job at Foot Locker, a PPP loan for about $20,000 for his landscaping business, a young daughter, and no criminal history—hallmarks of Atlanta hustle.
“He was trying to make things right with a lot of people in his life,” his sister said at his funeral two weeks later. “I could see his transition in life. It’s superhard to know that was taken away, because I felt like he just got it. . . . I just wish someone could have been there to protect him. I wish I could have protected him the way he always protected his family and friends.”
I watched behind yellow police tape as a Grady ambulance wheeled him away that night. And I watched a crowd of hundreds pile right back into the nightclubs and bars, unthreatened, as though the life lost was inconsequential, even though the murderer had not yet been identified, never mind arrested.
“This is the culture,” Amos said, flatly. “There’s nothing shocking about this. But if this happened in . . . Sandy Springs? People would be scattering. The cops would cordon off the whole street and close all the clubs.” Then, Amos and his crew blew for Buckhead in a cloud of tire smoke and contempt.
This article appears in our January 2022 issue.