The Murder Game
The last real-ass trap house in Capitol View is gone. In Atlanta, that has to mean something.
TV does no favors for the dead. When news crews hear about a murder, they descend on the scene for a fairly useless “visual.” Crime scenes are rarely dramatic after the event, especially with reams of yellow tape keeping the hounds at bay. But you’ve got to put something on the screen, right? So, news photographers find whatever they can to illustrate where they are and what happened. Perhaps they’ll find a stray bullet casing, or a hole in a car. Maybe there’s blood. Usually there isn’t even that much.
I wasn’t too surprised when news stories about a killing in Capitol View latched on to some colorful graffiti spraypainted in the street in front of the troubled house where the body was found: “Murder Game GSC,” with a dead body silhouette in bright paint. That’s a bingo.
None of the reporters stuck around long enough to see mourners assemble with white balloons, laying out the victim’s name in tea lights in the street. A shrine emerged on the artificial turf sodding the front lawn, with bottles of alcohol, votive candles and a teddy bear, all of which went untouched for weeks.
None of the reporters remarked upon the residents of 1395 Beatie Avenue unceremoniously moving goods and furniture out of the house.
And not one of the TV news crews bothered to explain how the graffiti got there or what it meant. Atlanta’s had more than 150 murders this year. The victim wasn’t a white, and wasn’t in Midtown or Buckhead. Why bother, right? Must be some hood shit. Carry on.
But I thought that detail was a little too on the nose to let it go.
It turns out that the murdered young man, Jamal “Pee Wee” Riley, had spray painted the three-foot-tall technicolor letters himself months earlier for a music video. Pee Wee laid in the street for a painted chalk outline of his body as part of the design. His cousin John Crawford painted the lines around him.
GSC stands for Gas Station Crew, which served as both the production company label for Crawford’s musical endeavors and the moniker for the cast of characters inhabiting the quintessential trap house where Pee Wee was murdered. Crawford has yet to release the video that was planned with the song that prompted the graffiti. “I know that because of my cousin’s death, a lot of people don't want me to release it. But hey, man, I paid money. I just got to get the product out there.”
Neighbors in Capitol View complained about the street defacement, of course, while wrestling with newcomer’s angst about what was worth a complaint. But in the litany of grievances raised about 1395 Beatie Avenue, this probably doesn’t make the top ten.
Once, Beatie Avenue was one of Atlanta’s rougher streets. Not so much today. But for the last few years, amid house-flippers and college students, drug dealers still sold from this house’s porch while nervous neighbors watched them through the blinds across the street. Strange cars with drive-out dealer tags parked at the house. Squatters came and went, bringing loud arguments and petty harassments with them. Firefights exploded on Ring cameras. Pee Wee, guns out up and down the street, regularly raised hell like a warlock.
The graffiti stayed up for two months before the city bothered to do anything about it. “Murder Game” outlasted shootouts on the street. It survived a police raid. And Pee Wee died before anyone killed the graffiti.
Around 10:30 on a Wednesday night at the end of September, someone shot the 28-year-old dead in the living room.
Atlanta’s public works crews power washed the paint off the street a few days later, but not before mourners came with bottles of Don Julio tequila and tea lights to mourn the death of a neighborhood fixture ... and not before news crews captured the graffiti.
I went to Beatie Street looking for the graffiti.
What I found is how Pee Wee’s murder catalyzed profound changes to the community. That trap house was a rearguard for the culture of guns, drugs and hustle that defined Atlanta’s poor neighborhoods, its ethos celebrated in song and exported as a musical commodity even as it consumed lives at home. Pee Wee’s death marked an end to the last real-ass trap house in Capitol View, ending this neighborhood’s trap era. A generational change comes to the story of Atlanta.
“I Came from Nothing” — mixtape title, Young Thug
Jamal Ali Riley didn’t have to die. But no one I spoke to seemed particularly surprised by it.
In the hundreds of messages of grief posted on social media and the many conversations I’ve had with people familiar with his life and death, Pee Wee came off as a rowdy, lifelong tough guy.
The police report for Pee Wee’s murder lists his home address on Bonnie Brae Avenue in Adair Park, a mile north of Beatie. But he hadn’t lived there in a long time. The house is empty and recently renovated. A crew is rebuilding the house next door, and another is working on the house across the street.
My friend Lawrence Miller lives three doors up the street from the house Pee Wee grew up in. Miller, outgoing president of the Adair Park board, picked up a foreclosure there for the price of a car note in the summer of 2012, when Bonnie Brae was still known for trouble. He ran into a teenaged Pee Wee.
“This house had been empty for about two-and-a-half years,” Miller said. “We were putting in a security door in the back, and this kid and a bunch of about six of them came through.” Miller pointed at his back fence, which wasn’t up yet, back then. The day care behind his house had a chain link fence that the neighborhood toughs would cut through to walk back and forth to the park.
“This kid comes through, and I went, ‘Yo, we own this house now. You can’t just walk through my property,’” Miller said. Pee Wee told Miller to go fuck himself. “And I said, ‘Who the fuck you think you're talking to?’”
Miller was with two other men. The electrician putting in security lights was about six feet tall and 230 pounds; the other putting in the security door was six-three and 240 or 250, Miller said. Miller himself is a lean six-foot-three Black man.
Pee Wee was about five-foot-six, 110 pounds, and didn’t give a damn. He lifted his shirt and showed them a gun, Miller said.
“That scares people, but not me,” Miller answered. Pee Wee departed, to return a few days later as though nothing had happened, cutting through again.
“This kid comes back through. What? ‘Who the fuck are you?’” Miller said. “And he said, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ And I said, ‘I'm Mister Miller. You won't talk to me that way.’ And he said, ‘I’ll talk to you ...’”
Miller didn’t let him finish the sentence. In a motion, Miller drew his .45 handgun, he said. “You won't what?”
“Oh, I just lived down the street,” Pee Wee said. “This is a cut through.”
Miller explained to him that the cut through was closed. “Get the fuck off my property, and don't go that way. Go back that way.”
“I got my eye on you,” Pee Wee replied, in Miller’s telling of the story.
Miller was having none of it. “Let me explain something to you. I am not from here. Let’s be real clear. I act like this bougie bitch. And I think you'd look at me and say, ‘Oh, he's not going to do it. He's a pussy.’ Don't think I'm a little pussy. I'll bring my New York ass right around.”
The confrontation between old-school Atlanta and the new wave of aspirational homeowners was itself an old story at this point. By 2012, gangs like 30 Deep and the Black Mafia Family had been dispersed by a combination of federal convictions and gentrification. But that’s the Atlanta that raised Pee Wee.
“Pee Wee was loyal to a fault,” said Sebasstian Watts, a hip hop artist who grew up on Dill Avenue in Capitol View, and knew Pee Wee from the neighborhood. “If he cared about you, he was going to ride with you right or wrong.”
I found Watts during a social media dive through the lives of people on Beatie Avenue. The hashtags #dillave and #GreedyBeatie – a hustler’s code -- linked Pee Wee’s friends to Watts’ music. Pee Wee was a product of that environment, Watts said.
Pee Wee spent his 18th birthday in a Fulton County jail cell after beating and robbing a man for an empty backpack with some friends. He pled guilty to that, and to two robbery charges in 2016. He spent much of his adult life on probation. Judge Henry Newkirk told him to change his friends, stop going out at night and to get a job, as though those words might replace his lived experience.
“When you come from the streets and you're not privy to, you know, a lot of positive experiences or a lot of positive opportunities to do things in life, you become involved with this idea of survival,” Watts said. “You wake up and all you see is the same shit. All you see is hustling. All you see is addicts. All you see – all you know – is how to operate on that frequency.”
Pee Wee was born in May 1993, just shy of the zenith of violent crime in Atlanta, according to FBI statistics. More than 16,000 acts of violence were reported to the Atlanta Police Department that year, with 203 murders and almost 10,000 aggravated assaults, even though Atlanta had 100,000 fewer residents than today. Compare that to the spike in Atlanta’s violence last year that had people screaming about from the rooftops: 1,344 violent crimes reported in 2020, with 157 murders. The violent crime victimization rate in Atlanta in 1993 was 41.3 crimes per 1,000 people – the highest of any major city in America.
Crime in Atlanta began to recede as Pee Wee aged, but not everywhere. Young, Black, male and very poor – Pee Wee lived in Section 8 housing as a child – in a neighborhood like Adair Park or Capitol View, at the height of Atlanta’s crack epidemic, meant being prepared for violence as a child.
“Pee Wee was a street fighter, a little boxer in the neighborhood,” said his cousin John Crawford, who is also an aspiring rapper and comedian who grew up on Dill Avenue. “A lot of people didn’t want to fight him so it would come down to some gun action. But he wasn’t someone who used guns. He was a fighter.”
That said ... Pee Wee did use guns. Several neighbors described him walking Beatie Avenue shirtless with a pistol in his pants, extended magazine protruding, accosting people at random over the course of the last year or so. It is how both the old neighborhood and the new knew him.
Pee Wee’s murderer apparently remains unknown to the police. I will generally refrain from identifying neighbors who spoke to me. But an elderly couple who have lived in the neighborhood for a generation understood Pee Wee as a notorious bully.
“He had a big old gun with an extended clip,” one woman said. “He would go around and bully one of the junkies that would sleep on the porch sometimes.” She described how one man at the trap house on Beatie Avenue would try to keep Pee Wee off someone. “I said I would call the police on him, and he would say ‘aw, auntie, I was just playing with ‘unk.’”
Another described Pee Wee as a visible source of internal conflict at the trap house.
“One day he was carrying around the metal pole at the end of a fence ... and threatening to bash a guy’s head in,” a neighbor said. “And the other guy was like, “I’m sick of him. I’m sick of him. I’ve got love for him, but I’m sick of him.”
I don’t want to summarize Pee Wee’s life by his misdeeds. I’ve tried to reach out to his family for a clearer picture of the man; his mother responded with little but characteristic rage at the attempt. Pee Wee was a man filled with trouble, and that’s what most of the people around him that I spoke with seemed to reflect upon.
Pee Wee’s world was changing, however. The real estate bust of 2007 hollowed out his neighborhood, scattering his friends and neighbors across metro Atlanta. Bit by bit, they were replaced with new faces; people with more money, fewer disadvantages and different social values.
His world narrowed. Few safe havens remained.
One of them was an old house in the middle of Beatie Avenue, or so he thought.
“The trap concession stand, get you a slurpy.”— from Contraband, by Migos
Choppa on the floor pistol on the coach / Hood rich so I never had a bank account / Junkies going in junkies going out / Made a hundred tho (usand) In My Trap House / Money kinda short but we can work it out / Made a hundred tho (usand) In My Trap House / Bricks going in, Bricks going out / Made a hundred tho (usand) In My Trap House – “Trap House,” Gucci Mane
What is a trap house?
“I think everybody knew about the trap house down the street, but unless you were selling drugs or were a customer, you didn’t know what was going on inside,” said Bem Joiner, co-founder of the creative consultancy/brand, Atlanta Influences Everything and one of the guardians of Atlanta cultural authenticity.
We can say that it’s a place people use primarily to buy and use drugs. But really, it’s so much more.
VICE’s Noisey show did a 10-part project on Atlanta’s rap culture five years ago that remains essential viewing on the topic, connecting the drug game to the music business, Joiner said. Even so, Noisey argued that we call them trap houses because they may have only one entrance and exit. Joiner and I think that’s insufficient. They’re symbols for the barrier to upward mobility presented by poverty. Paradoxically, they’ve also become symbols for exactly the opposite: the get-money hustle-til-you-die ethos of the street.
Joiner referenced the last line of Outkast’s Spottieottiedopaliscious: so now you back in the trap just that, trapped. “You’re getting money and doing well selling drugs, but you’re trapped there,” Joiner said.
A trap ... is a trap.
Trap houses are an operating base for people who have no legal, practical avenue for advancement, a grotty cage for survival while hustling toward something better. Women turning tricks at the trap is common enough to be a cliché. A proper trap house might have someone fixing cars in the driveway, cooking wings in the kitchen or doing nails and hair out of the second bedroom.
When rapper 2 Chainz painted a dilapidated house on Howell Mill Road hot pink to promote his album Pretty Girls Like Trap Music in 2017, the place hosted art galleries and painting events. They held church there. Someone offered nail services there in a Craiglist ad. 2 Chainz turned it into a free HIV testing center for a time. The multimodal use was very on-brand for a trap house.
The house is set to be demolished soon.
Traps are usually abandoned property. If the lights and water are on, it’s because someone managed to fool the utility company into believing a legal tenant occupies the place. Someone might be collecting rent from whoever chooses to flop there. That someone may or may not be just some dude who hasn’t been kicked out yet.
Atlanta is lousy with trap houses. The term originated here, which speaks to how hollowed out the city became during its period of white flight. Atlanta started losing population around 1970 and didn’t get back to its peak until this year. It’s not hard to find an empty house in Atlanta. A trip through Vine City and English Avenue still yields boarded up property and all that comes with it.
My intent isn’t to celebrate trap houses, which are, frankly, obnoxious. One in particular has pissed me off for years: the blue house in between Edgewood Avenue and the bustling drug market in May Park on Borders Drive. It’s across the street from O’Hern House, a residential drug rehabilitation program. It’s like holding an AA meeting in a bar.
But let’s acknowledge the allure of trap culture.
Atlanta is at the center of the musical universe today because of trap music. At first, trap as a subgenre of rap was synonymous with gritty descriptions of the drug business and the imagined excesses of drug dealers. The trap is referenced repetitively in trap music as a way for rappers to extract money from their bleak condition, and to hell with anyone who gets in the way of that.
The trap house entered the cultural lexicon through music that started here, in Atlanta. References to the trap started in the early- ‘90s, later popularized by T.I. and Gucci Mane, Joiner said.
It's not that trap music glamorized drug dealing so much as it used it as a mark of authenticity as gangster rap grew more mainstream, raising the stakes. “Real” gangsters supposedly lived these lives of urban despair, unironically describing lives beset by and committing crime as an act of survival.
Never mind, of course, that artists like Quavo, Offset and Takeoff of the ultra-successful trap music rap group Migos grew up in suburban Lawrenceville, Ga. Young Thug is mainstream enough for a Saturday Night Live appearance a few months ago. Nor should we dwell on how the primary commercial audience for this music are young white suburban listeners who are attractive to marketers and seeking authentic, subversive experiences at the expense of the Black image.
But the meaning of the word “trap” is not immutable. “Jazz” was once a sexual term, a corruption of the word “jism” related to the early life of the music as entertainment in high-end New Orleans brothels. Like trap, jazz was pilloried before becoming the music of choice for young people until another rebellious musical movement – rock and roll – displaced it.
The term “trap” is starting to drift as the sound becomes mainstream. Now anything with an 808 drum beat seems to qualify.
“You look at trap drum, all you see is white kids spazzing out,” Atlanta’s culture warrior Joiner said. “The word is getting all types of thrown around.”
Atlanta’s trap culture isn’t immutable, either. The brothels of New Orleans tumbled with the start of World War I, driving jazz musicians onto the road. The traps of Atlanta are likely to go the same route, as gentrification washes through poor Black neighborhoods.
“What else can I say? I love the trap house.” from Trap House, by Ca$h Out and Migos.
I remember Dill Avenue, gettin' it in / Ran from police with Tonio, my best friend / Extended Glizzy, 30, and a FNN / Hit him with Draco, he won't see again – “Red Rum,” Soulja Boy
Capitol View has been through hell over the last 30 years, and John Cotton watched most of it happen.
“This place was drug polluted,” Cotton said of Dill Avenue in the 90s. “There were drugs on every street, from the top all the way down to the bottom. These side streets weren’t nothing but drug houses. With these here that God gave me,” Cotton said, pointing to his eyes, “I’ve seen 10 people die, get shot on this street in Capitol View.”
Cotton has lived in a house on Dill at the end of Beatie Avenue for the last 50 years. His parents were among the first Black families to move to the neighborhood in the ‘70s. “When we first moved over here, it was like moving from the projects to Buckhead.”
His house is falling apart a bit, now. He’s selling it. “I hate that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do,” he said. “I would still be in it if I could have gotten it renovated.”
1395 Beatie Avenue has been a trap house for a long time, Cotton said. He knew the house well enough to speak about it ... with visible reservations. (It’s clear from how often John Cotton appears in social media photographs with other people associated with the house that he knows more than he chose to let on with me. I’m going to let that slide this time.)
“While it was going on, I would describe it as very ... entertaining,” he said. “There was always activities on. You can’t really say what, but it stayed that way 24-7.” What kind of activities? “Who knows? I wasn’t among them, but I saw everything. Neighbors couldn’t even get to their house because they kept cars in the street.”
Cotton also knew Pee Wee, whom he said paid him respect, but was influenced by the street. “He chose the wrong path,” Cotton said. “He lived the way people say he lived. He was doing what people said he was doing. There was no way out but prison or death. It stunned the daylights out of me. He didn’t deserve to die that way.”
There’s a lot to understand about the neighborhood, but it’s hard to get from outside, he said. “You have to be in the midst of it,” he said. Pee Wee’s death changed things, but “the neighborhood was changing anyway. Gentrification.”
“Turn Down for What” — song title by DJ Snake and Lil Jon
Fill the bando up with bags, give the lil' bro them a job / You can come get rich with us, you gon' eat or you gon' starve? – “On Me,” Lil Baby and Megan Thee Stallion
Amelia Carter bought the trap house – 1395 Beatie Avenue – in March for $185,000, planning to renovate and flip the house. Carter, a Black construction manager living in suburban Atlanta, has a background in real estate investment. What she doesn’t have a background in ... is trap houses.
“I had no idea,” she said. “You know, I wish I had talked to the neighbors before I bought the house, but then maybe, you know, who knows what would have happened? Maybe people would still be there? I don't know.”
She bought the house from a mortgage firm which had foreclosed on a holding company in January 2020. That holding company had held the deed since 2017. They turned the property into an AirBnB, which is how neighborhood dealers adopted it. People moved in and quit paying for it.
While other investors bought up houses on the street to flip, the little gray house in the middle of the street remained a continuous source of disorder. By the middle of 2020, police records show that the house had become a nuisance, with regular drug sales taking place in the open from the porch.
DLJ Mortgage Capital, Inc. tried to dislodge the residents. The filing in Fulton County Magistrate Court in June 2020 lists Derek Harris, Jumel Harris and Larry Foster in the document. (I’ve tried to reach all of them, without success.) Harris’ name pops up in other property disputes in the neighborhood with this mortgage company. Court records show that Harris is disabled and poor, and has been bouncing from house to house on the edge of homelessness for years. Harris got into a fight at another house on Beatie in 2017, stabbing a man who attacked him.
Foster and Jumel Harris entered a consent judgment with DLJ to leave the house before January 19th, 2021.
The house did not empty. If anything, things accelerated.
The Georgia Secretary of State’s website lists a business incorporation at 1395 Beatie Avenue last year. Yasmine Farah Hamilton incorporated GudBusiness4You LLC, a “jewelry and silverware making” business there on February 19. She subsequently established a trucking company with USDOT number 3662732 under that incorporation. Then she filed for a PPP loan as a beauty salon sole proprietorship there, claiming a loan of $19,791 on claimed income of $94,997 a year.
So did Lashanda Davis, who filed for a $9,375 PPP loan under the “independent artist, writer, and performer” designation as an independent contractor.
Hamilton did not return calls, texts or emails seeking comment. I couldn’t find Davis at all.
Now, I hesitate to get between people and their hustle. While I’ve never applied for a PPP loan, if I did then you’d see my home address on the documents. I don’t have a business office. That said ... Yasmine Hamilton doesn’t have a professional hairdresser’s license and Lashanda Davis has no public profile as an artist that I can find. She’s a ghost. I’m just saying.
I mention this because it speaks to the role a trap house plays in the ecology of the street.
“It was infuriating that they're outside just at this house that they don't own, like, never contributed to pay one cent,” Carter said. She’s still trying to figure out how they had electrical service without legal residency. “They'd be having an Easter egg hunt. It's crazy that the same house where police are serving a drug warrant that their kids out here in the yard. And this is the same house responsible for the shootings and all of these things. I mean, it's just ... it was absolutely insane.”
At some point, a stripper pole had been professionally installed in the living room.
John Crawford attributed the pole to the lockdown. “Hey, man, those folks were like, okay, y’all want to keep going out and catch corona? We’ll let you stay right here. People in the neighborhood would go up there, too,” Crawford said of the place. “It’s not just totally about the old people from the community. It was like one of the last meet-up spots. If we’re not there, we hang at the park. ... I guess if you mix the pandemic with people going through all their problems, any altercation can happen.”
Neighbors noticed a parade of different cars parked at the house with temporary paper drive-out license tags, typically reserved for used car dealerships. They suggested that might be a sign of a car theft operation.
Police records show four shootouts on the street over the course of a year. Three happened in broad daylight.
Let’s look at the second shootout on Beatie Avenue, on May 16, which started just before 1 p.m.
Police arrived at the house to find “an armed unknown suspect” had hopped the back fence and entered someone’s home. The owners of that house fled across the street while calling police.
A neighbor said she saw a man standing behind a truck parked in the driveway, firing south down Beatie Avenue before running back into the trap house.
Two anonymous witnesses later told police that the shooter “was standing in the yard of 1395 Beatie Ave SW, when he saw a grey car, being driven by a Black male come through the area,” the police report said. “The shooter then walked on the left side of the house and retrieved a black handgun. When the grey vehicle came back, the shooter then started shooting at the vehicle. The witnesses reported that the incident stemmed from an unreported shooting incident on Beatie Ave SW, that happened [the day before]. Witnesses reported that some black males that come hang out in the area were shooting at the shooter. So, the shooter saw one of the males that he believed to be with the group of males from that day and started shooting at him. Witnesses reported that they did not know the names of any of the individuals. But that all parties do hang out on Beatie Ave SW, but do not live on Beatie Ave SW.”
It would be wrong to say that the cops didn’t care about daylight shootings. It’s clear that they were trying to build some kind of case that would stick in court for serious jail time.
Police made at least three drug purchases using undercover operatives since the middle of 2020. Each of the reports named the same man as the dealer: Meshawn Reynolds. Twenty years ago, Reynolds was accused of participating in a murder on Dill Avenue. Prosecutors dropped the charges.
Two of the undercover buys led to the city’s APEX unit – APD’s high-powered antidrug squad – raiding the house. Police found cocaine and ecstasy – less than the 28 grams necessary to qualify as “trafficking” – marijuana, counterfeit money and magazines for guns in a raid in September 2020. The second time around was less exciting.
On August 27, police locked down the street and went into 1395 Beatie Avenue with a search warrant. They found Reynolds there, along with a few other people: Yasmine Hamilton, Jumel Lewis and five others, according to the report.
Police found nothing incriminating in plain view. “K-9 alerted in the back left bedroom, marijuana that was inside of bedroom dresser. That was the only narcotics that was found inside of the home,” according to the report. “There were three MDMA pill that was on the side of the house, however there was an unknown possessor.”
Trap houses are insufferable, more so because they’re sticky. It takes something dramatic – usually several somethings – for the police to invoke the “disorderly house” legal standard to shutter a property. The owner has to be cited personally, which often isn’t practical because the owner is in New Jersey or Dubai or is functionally unknown because it’s an LLC incorporated in Nassau.
That wasn’t the case for 1395 Beatie Avenue. Amelia Carter was on neighborhood Zoom meetings, offering color commentary on everything she was doing to help. But in 2020 and 2021, the pandemic has been the problem.
“Yes, there were drugs sold there, but it was also to hang out, to drink, smoke and entertain women,” said Major Carlo Peek, who commands Zone 3 of the Atlanta Police Department. “Yeah, we served warrants. We even went out and made some arrests on the street. But one of the frustrations during COVID was certain charges -- drug charges, even certain gun charges – the jail wasn't taking them. So, we gave them a copy of their charges.”
Keith Backmon, an APD detective, tried to talk with Reynolds during the August raid, but Reynolds refused. The cops ran him for warrants and found an active warrant in Henry County. Jumel Lewis had one in Fulton County.
Neither sheriff’s office wanted to take them.
Police released both and cited Hamilton for a small amount of marijuana in her possession.
People familiar with law enforcement know the position they’re in with the pandemic, Peek said. “Once they were arrested and taken into custody, they would say they had been exposed to COVID-19, or had COVID, or were getting over COVID, and the jail wouldn’t take them,” Peek said. “It’s really frustrating for officers.”
Well. Imagine how the neighbors felt.
“Tryna feed the fam, I was trappin' in the cold.” — from Spiral, by 21 Savage
People living in Capitol View have been trying to pacify Beatie Avenue for a long time.
Crime had been falling on its own, for a time. Between 1994 and 2017 or so, crime fell almost everywhere. Neighborhood leaders nudged it along in fits and starts. Leaders started a program to pay for extra cops with three other communities in 2008 or so. It didn’t last. But by 2017, gone were the days of dope boys on every block and a trap house on every corner. That pace of change accelerated as the economic mix in the neighborhood changed.
The pandemic put an end to the long slide toward relative peace. Crime spiked. Capitol View took about as big a hit as any neighborhood in Atlanta overall with three murders in 2021. But the brunt of neighborhood disorder seemed to center on this one house.
I trawled through the neighborhood social media chatter about Beatie Avenue. I’ve done that before, and it’s usually the kind of toxic sludge that makes you scrub your wrinkly parts extra hard in the shower after. I found less of the petty complaining than I expected in Capitol View.
Yes, Baby the Dog escaped again. Or: Did you see the kid knocking on doors? I caught him on my Ring camera. Or: Hey, the house up the street is for sale, and they’re asking $485,000. Anyone know what company did the renovation?
Karen stuff, sure. But also: There are cops surrounding my house. My roofer just told me there's like 20 cops on the next block. I asked one of them, and all they would say is that the investigation had nothing to do with my house. Or: The house is for sale -- “This home is occupied, and the purchaser will be taking on all the legal obligations of removing the occupant(s). Please do not approach the occupants.” Or: Anyone else count eight shots just now? Beatie and Genessee area?
Of course, if you live in metro Atlanta, you have taken the “was that a gunshot or firecrackers” challenge. For the most part, folks near Beatie Avenue knew they were hearing gunshots. The question for them was whether they would be the ones to call the police or not.
My sense of things after talking to people in the neighborhood is that no real consensus formed about when to make that call, or who should be calling. For every young white newcomer offering resistance to the idea of weaponizing the criminal justice system against “legacy residents,” a Black homeowner would be calling cops when gunfire erupted and counting every extra minute in response time as a mark against the city’s regard for Black neighborhoods.
Everyone seemed to know about Pee Wee. Tolerance varied.
Though there were other properties that attracted trouble, none had been like 1395 Beatie Avenue so consistently over the years. Anxiety boiled over after the shootout in May. The Capitol View Neighborhood Association increasingly leaned on the cops and elected officials for help.
“The main thing is trying to get the occupants of 1395 Beatie Avenue out of there,” Major Peek told neighbors in a contentious Zoom meeting held a few days after the gunfire in May. Peek suggested that the FBI and other federal agencies might want a piece of the action. He promised to refer cases for prosecution as violent repeat offenders, and asked people to keep calling the police and providing information. But he cautioned that it would do no good to shut one place down just for dealers to open up shop in another house in the neighborhood. “Arresting our way out of this is not a solution.”
Peek told me later that he couldn’t get any federal agency to take interest in Beatie Avenue. “There’s criteria for federal prosecution, but nothing met those criteria.”
The homeowner, Amelia Carter, had a legal writ of possession in hand – the legal authority to kick everyone out of the house. But an eviction requires the presence of county marshals. Do-it-yourself evictions without a marshal serving papers is highly illegal under state law and could actually create a legal tenancy for squatters.
But the marshal’s office had slowed down evictions during the pandemic, and weren’t prioritizing Carter’s case.
City councilwoman Joyce Sheperd insisted that she would hold police accountable, to “challenge” them to succeed. “We have to come up with a plan that will work. ... I’m going to hold them to that task. This year I’m going to make sure they’re on top of this.”
She talked about leadership siloes, with the city, county and state officials working at cross-purposes without sharing resources. “I have formed several commissions ... to deal with crime,” she said. “A lot of things we’re talking about aren’t our purview.”
Capitol View residents had been asking for a camera on the street for years. Sheperd said she had talked to the police foundation about a camera. She said she had city funding for a program for a camera. She said the neighborhood was a priority for a camera.
They never got a camera.
Randall Frazier is a 43-year-old financial manager and Morehouse-trained accountant from LA who moved to a house in Capitol View in 2018. He’s married. He’s Black. After neighbors had been sending pictures of license plates and security video and regular calls to the cops, being asked for more community help set him off.
“We have one address, where all of us know who owns the house, who the kingpin is, who the dope runners are,” Frazier said. “All of us know the answer, and nothing happens.”
“Don’t tell us to do more. You need to do more,” he said to Peek and Sheperd, his voice ringing with controlled tension. “And if he’s an asset or whatever you want to call it for some larger organization, some three-letter organization, be halfway honest with us so we know we’re going to have shootouts in our neighborhood until some three-letter organization decides they want to clean this up. Is it going to be clean with $500,000 houses? $600,000 houses? Because we have active drug sales in the middle of the day, every single day, and the police are telling us and our council person is telling us and the City of Atlanta is telling us that they can’t figure out how to stop it. And that’s really hard to take. Do we have to pretend like we’re in Buckhead? Do we have to pretend like we’re in Midtown? What are you going to do so that we are safe?”
“Because I promise you if I went out there with my own guns and I handled this myself, you would find me in five minutes,” Frazier said. “But you can’t find dope dealers.”
I note in passing that Sheperd, chairwoman of the city council’s public safety committee, lost her seat in the 2021 municipal elections.
“The old me is dead and gone, dead and gone.” — from Dead and Gone, T.I.
A 23-year-old wunderkind designer was bicycling home sometime between 10 and 10:30 p.m. on September 29 when he heard a gunshot from the trap house in front of him. He stopped for a moment, afraid to pass, and listened.
“I heard a guy say something along the lines of ‘aw, don’t do that,’ but in a tone that carried no urgency,” he told me. “I rode on, thinking that someone was just shooting at the walls or something.”
Pee Wee had just been killed.
After years of intermittent chaos, a single gunshot was no longer enough to rouse the neighborhood. The designer didn’t call the police. Neither did the neighbors.
“I feel so bad that I didn’t call in those shots,” a resident said the next day on Facebook. “I’m just so used to hearing them.”
Pee Wee lay face up on the hardwood floor for five hours before an anonymous caller dialed 911 to tell the cops to get a dead body at 1395 Beatie Avenue.
“I got the call,” said his cousin John Crawford. “I was one of the people that made the phone call. They were like ‘John, your cousin is up there dead in this house, man. They're not telling you.’ I said ‘you all are lying.’ You know? So, I was like, the third or fourth call to the police.”
The police arrived at about 3:30 a.m. No one living was present. Police came in through the unlocked screen door. Investigators found a fully-furnished home in a “state of disarray.”
The medical examiner arrived at about 7 a.m. They found Pee Wee’s body in the open dining room and living area, going cold in a pool of his own blood, according to the medical examiner’s report. Characteristically shirtless, he was wearing red shorts, black undershorts, gray socks, and red and white shoes. Investigators found $480 in his pockets, along with a vial of cologne, a pouch and a mask. They handed them to his mother. Though a smoker, he was not carrying a lighter or cigarettes.
Pee Wee had been shot five times: three in the right arm and shoulder, one to his right side and one to his upper left chest.
Neighbors say that people in the house began unceremoniously moving their stuff out of the house almost immediately.
A few days after Pee Wee’s death, police made a special effort to connect with the Fulton County Marshal’s office. Carter walked into the house for the first time that Monday, writ in hand with a county marshal. Behind her were workmen from a professional house sealing company, who bolted steel plates to the windows and replaced its front door with something more like a bank vault. The house was hers, finally.
She wished it didn’t take someone’s death to spur action. “If they could have helped us get these people out, maybe, you know, their life ...” She trailed off. “At least it wouldn’t have happened here. Or maybe they would have had more ... I don't know. It just seems like there was a way to prevent this person from being killed on that day in this house.”
Crawford, the comedian, said he covered the cost of Pee Wee’s funeral. He was one of two people who spoke at it. No reference was made to the circumstances of his death.
Crawford told some jokes about taking him to a strip club and picking up girls. “People saw the toughness in him, but he was a stand-up guy,” Crawford said. “He told me something real. He said, ‘cuz, every time I swing on someone, every time, I’m afraid they’re going to hit me first.’”
Crawford said that Pee Wee must have known his killer, given how he died. No arrests have been made in connection to the murder case. The air fills with semi-informed chatter. It’s unclear how much APD Detective Gordon Payne is hearing, or how useful it might be. The Hat Squad has little to say to journalists about an active investigation.
“This is just my personal opinion,” Major Peek said. “When you have a case like Beatie Avenue, when you have individuals who know who did the murder and won’t say anything ... like you said, when that person has pissed a lot of people off ... normally even a bad guy who’s killed, if he’s done some good, whether to other drug dealers, or prostitutes, or have given money to other people in the neighborhood, somebody usually comes forward with some information. In this case, it doesn’t look like anybody is willing to come forward to help APD solve this murder.”
The rapper Sebasstian Watts believes Pee Wee’s murder is likely a once-off situation.
“I’m hearing different things about what happened. I know a lot of the parties involved,” Watts said. “That was the product of a young kid being condescending to a person who is also part of the same fabric, and the other person didn’t take lightly to the joking, condescending manner in which Jamal was presenting. And as any man would in a situation, especially with the way the law is in Georgia with stand-your-ground, if you’re provoked and you fear for your life and you have the means to react first, then it doesn’t matter who is in front of you: you want to protect your life first. That’s the most I’m going to say about it. It’s very unfortunate.”
“Gentrify your own hood before these people do it.” — Nipsey Hussle Freestyle, Jay-Z
Capitol View has been quiet for ten weeks and counting.
No street fights. No gun battles. No cars parading down Beatie Avenue with people looking for drugs.
The rancor of the last few years has abated. It’s not completely clear where the people who lived and worked at the trap house went. The visibility of their activities, if they remain in the neighborhood at all, has diminished below detectable levels.
One relatively-new resident called it Mayberry now.
It’s not Mayberry. It’s just better. For them.
Workmen are fixing up 1395 Beatie Avenue. They’ve repainted the drab gray with bright yellow. The bullet holes have been patched. The stripper pole is gone. It’s going to be a fabulous house with a quirky history for some two-income couple sometime in the next few months. The neighbors will celebrate whoever moves in. I’d be shocked if Amelia Carter made less than six figures, net, from the exercise.
I bet it’s more than the dealers were making, selling 3/5th bags of weed $60 at a time.
Real estate investors and trap house entrepreneurs have the same motivation: get money. Trap houses exploit poverty as a commercial enterprise. Only, the people extracting wealth from the poor by selling drugs at the trap usually started off in poverty themselves, as though that provides enough justification.
Atlanta’s story is always about making money for someone. The screeching complaints about crime generally boil down to an argument about property values, with people in Buckhead – or Capitol View – quietly concerned about losing hundreds of thousands in home equity if the neighborhood stops looking like a solid investment.
Street violence rarely impacts people who aren’t part of the scene. It is the province of the dispossessed scraping along at the bottom of the income distribution with few avenues for advancement. It’s a product of nihilism and despair. It’s concentrated.
And yet, “regular folks” living near acts of violence freak out because it creates the appearance of risk, and that appearance is enough to create a stigma – a baseless but effective one. I’m not shocked to see Black people in these neighborhoods fighting hardest for changes.
But for far too many white people, it’s no big leap to associate poverty with the violence, and then Black people with the poverty, and then to do whatever it takes to keep Black people out of their neighborhoods, never mind that it is concentration of poverty that creates nihilistic violence.
The musical celebration of trap culture throws up a gigantic middle finger to all of this.
“They look at kids in these impoverished neighborhoods, and they’re looked down on,” Watts said, “like they’re a lost cause, that they can't be fixed, that they can’t be helped. And these kids know it. They see it in your actions. The world is turning its back on us. So, survival instincts kick in and these kids look for family in gangs and shit like that among themselves – older guys, gangsters, hustlers, pimps, prostitutes – there’s no structure and no rules. You do what the fuck you have to do to survive and to accommodate yourself. And that’s the best way I can explain Atlanta, Georgia ... and the United States of America.”
This is the “Murder Game” that Pee Wee lost.
My deep appreciation to Dan Whisenhunt of Decaturish for editorial help with this piece, as well as my wife Sara Amis.