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"I'm scared to break the top / I'm scared to make a mess because I'm watched by the cops / I'm scared to count my blessings cause I'm getting watched by my opps."
This list of fears belongs to Young Thug: Atlanta rap's resident aesthete, parent to a generation of gun-toting crooners and bubbly pop-trap stylists. And last May, Atlanta police materialized Thug's fears when officers from the Atlanta Police Department and Fulton County Sheriff's Office raided his home and arrested him. The Fulton County District Attorney's Office indicted Thug and 27 associates on 56 separate counts—alleging that his Young Stoner Life (YSL) record label operated as a street gang. By August, prosecutors re-indicted the case with 65 total counts, six of which apply to Thug.
The YSL indictment includes several other rappers, too, from superstars like Gunna to lesser-known artists like Lil Duke, Yak Gotti, Slimelife Shawty, and Thug's brother Unfoonk. Just before Christmas, Gunna, Duke, Slimelife Shawty, and Unfoonk took plea deals with four other label members and associates. Almost all of them pled guilty to racketeering charges, while Gunna and Slimelife Shawty took what are called Alford pleas, which assert their innocence. Six other associates will be tried separately. This leaves Thug and 13 others facing the case's central trial, which has been in the midst of jury selection since the beginning of January.
This story is the first in a two-part series from pop justice, Scalawag's newsletter that wrestles with the way popular culture warps our understanding of justice—and stalls abolition. Read part two here, and subscribe to pop justice for more in-depth perspectives like this.
Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis, a Black woman who's overseen high-profile racketeering cases involving entertainers and Atlanta Public School employees, has argued that gangs "are committing, conservatively, 75-to-80 percent of all of the violent crimes" in the Atlanta area. They're a central focus of law enforcement across the metro area and across Georgia—and these days, anti-gang policing is inseparable from Atlanta hip-hop.
Although the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act was passed in 1970 to more easily prosecute mafia families, RICO charges have now become a go-to strategy for taking down hip-hop artists. Prominent RICO cases involving rap cliques and entourages such as have become more and more common in the past 20 years, especially in Atlanta.
But that's not the only major trend at play in YSL's ongoing trial. There's a deep connection between policing and "urban renewal" in Atlanta. Through the state's various strongholds, including the police, transforming urban space always ends up taking some communities off the map entirely. YSL (and Young Thug) might be the next big casualties.
Atlanta's gone through unprecedented levels of gentrification over the past 25 years—one recent study suggested that it's the fourth-fastest gentrifying U.S. city. Since the 1996 Olympics, a torrent of prominent development projects have shaken up the historical ecosystem of Atlanta's low-income neighborhoods; just between June 2021 and 2022, the average rent in Atlanta increased by almost 15 percent. This long arc of redevelopment has been countered by persistent efforts to organize against gentrification throughout the city. As working-class and poor Black Atlantans fight against displacement and fall back on everyday survival tactics, they're joining a decades-long struggle over who exactly the city's for.
So is YSL.
ZONE 3: IF YOU'RE NOT FROM BLEVELAND…
"She love the way I talk, I got a slimey grammar / She ask me where I'm from, I told her south Atlanta."Gunna, "Vibing" (unreleased song)
I've been writing in Memphis, Tennessee, six hours from Georgia by car. But right now, I'm watching a YouTube video that's pure Atlanta. A crowd of people are hanging out in a park on the city's south side. It's Cleveland Avenue Day, 2018: an annual tradition celebrating this particular corner of southeast Atlanta, the place that made YSL what it is.
At some points in the video, YSL music takes over the sounds of the crowd: Lil Keed's "Fetish;" Thug, Karlae, and Duke's "U Ain't Slime Enough." Other times, it's all voices overlapping, fingers twisting, blunts passing, ribs smoking on a grill. A shirtless man walking on crutches greets the camera, afro-pick still in his hair. Keed pulls out a fat wad of cash and starts fanning it. Someone pulls out a snake, and it starts curling around their finger. As the sky darkens and the hours pass, we see more glimpses of the neighborhood: niggas with glocks tucked in their waistbands, a silver Porsche convertible with the top off, a parody Sprite T-shirt that reads "Slime" instead. No matter how far YSL travels for recording studios and tour dates, they always seem to end up back here eventually.
The YSL collective's old stomping grounds have been called a lot of different names. The Atlanta Police Department, and a lot of local rappers, call it Zone 3—reflecting the way cops have cut up the city into six major precincts. If you look at a map of south and southeast Atlanta, you'll see lots of neighborhoods packed tightly together: Hammond Park, Lakewood, Peoplestown, Thomasville Heights, and Sylvan Hills, where Thug was born, to name a few. (Policing takes up real space around here, too: a federal penitentiary looms in the skyline near Thomasville Heights, while the area's elementary school was recently closed and much of its housing condemned.) When city planners divide Atlanta into Neighborhood Planning Units (NPUs)—25 regions with "citizen advisory councils that make recommendations to the Mayor and City Council on zoning, land use, and other planning-related matters"—YSL's home sits firmly within NPU-Z. But when YSL talks about where they're from, the place they almost always point to is Cleveland Avenue, an east-west corridor that passes through a 4-mile cross-section of Fulton County.
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The western side of Cleveland Ave sits in the small, majority-Black suburb of East Point. In a 2014 cover story by The FADER, we see Young Thug recording in the closet of an East Point home belonging to fellow rapper Peewee Longway. In 2015, Thug and Lil Uzi Vert filmed a music video for their song "Big Racks" in East Point's Customer Care Department, angering some residents when the video included a mock robbery and hostage situation. As you move east, toward Interstates 75 and 85, Cleveland turns largely commercial—there's a Walmart where a rumor briefly spread in 2021 that Thug would pay for customers' holiday purchases. By the time you get to Cleveland's eastern end, where it intersects with Jonesboro Road, you've passed by schools and libraries, the Brown's Mill golf course, and mixed-income housing, not far from the South River. Near the corner of Cleveland and Jonesboro is the site of the now-demolished Jonesboro South apartments, where Young Thug and his siblings grew up.
It's important to note that the area surrounding Cleveland has been majority-Black and low-income for some time now. To offer a snapshot from recent years: a 2007 study found that about 77 percent of the corridor's residents were Black, and 42 percent of households there had an income of less than $25,000 a year. Fifteen years ago, the median home value near Cleveland was over $130,000 less than the citywide median. But, almost 60 percent of residents in the corridor leased, which suggests that much of the area's capital was concentrated outside of its residential neighborhoods.
Southeast Atlanta was a hotbed for federal housing projects in the 1960s and '70s. But by the time Thug's career was starting, they were on their way out. By 2011, all of the city's projects were demolished, mostly to make way for future mixed-income developments. Jonesboro South was among the last to go; Thug has said in interviews that his family stayed "until the last day, until they closed it and started knocking down the buildings." As the country transitioned into the Obama years, Atlanta's mayors came and went, promising more deals with private developers and fixes for a budget full of gaps. There was another path for the Cleveland corridor back then, perhaps, a path that we can no longer see. YSL's beginnings reflected many of the corridor's preexisting dynamics. The label's rise to stardom gave them a new meaning.
In a city that's been shaped by redlining, white flight, and crisscrossing transportation lines, Atlanta's Black neighborhoods form a complex network of cultural transmission. This cultural network has led to the huge aesthetic diversity that's defined Atlanta hip-hop, especially in the past decade. And it's a huge contrast to the way these same neighborhoods are often politically isolated: deprived of city funding, resources, and infrastructure. Beneath these two trends—cultural diffusion and political isolation—there's YSL's Atlanta, a place built by the Black working class and urban poor in the shadow of state abandonment. This is a place built on the sensibilities of contemporary trap, where the everyday war stories of Bush-era Jeezy and T.I. have mixed with more than a decade's worth of experiments in production and vocal style.
When YSL reps Cleveland Avenue (and Zone 3 more broadly), it's not just through their lyrics, but their whole approach to making music. These glimpses of YSL's home circulate in the mainstream as motifs for the broader social pressures of U.S. pop culture: the opioid epidemic, the widening income gap, the routine surveillance of social media, the carceral state, and "the militarization of everyday life… the death of civilian space."
Is Zone 3 the most dangerous part of Atlanta? It depends on who you ask. In 1981, reporters described it as a "war zone," noting that there were "more officers patrolling Zone 3 than there are in any other zone." Forty years later, police data claims that Zone 3 had the most recorded murders and aggravated assaults of any precinct in 2021. And within Zone 3, Cleveland Avenue has been singled out in the past as a center of violent crime, the drug trade, and sex work. "Danger" is a messy term, full of antiblack and classist subtext, but Zone 3 has potentially had more contact with the criminal justice system than almost anywhere else in the city.
The YSL indictment includes several references to Cleveland as evidence: an "R.O.C. crew" tattoo (according to prosecutors, this stands for "raised on Cleveland"), lyrics about being on or from Cleveland, "stuck like a magnet," "[throwing] your set up." Law enforcement have also discussed the fact that YSL affiliates often replace the "C" with a "B," a choice commonly associated with members of the Bloods gang. "If u wanna no what bleveland is,… It's where the bloods be!!!" Young Thug said in a 2011 tweet. This doesn't necessarily mean that YSL was operating as an offshoot of the national Bloods, which is one of the indictment's central arguments. It does, however, suggest that gang culture has been a formative presence in this part of Atlanta, the way it's been in countless underserved Black communities across the country. Turning Cleveland to "Bleveland" is a kind of callback to the area's reputation: it reveals a shared recognition of the high stakes of living there. It's a quick way to hint at the corridor's ruthlessness, at the fact that surviving in the antiblack, capitalist city is often an active, violent process.
I don't quote YSL here to suggest innocence or guilt—which the Fulton County D.A.'s Office has already done in multiple cases involving rappers. Workers and management across the music industry, cultural critics, and academics have argued that the use of lyrics as evidence reproduces racist ideas about hip-hop, denying rappers' capacity for fiction or character work. But the kinds of stories you hear in YSL's music do have real-world implications: they're meant to ground us in the neighborhood as rappers experienced it, not what others might want it to be. Like when Slimelife Shawty says he "just might go buy the Texaco, the one right there on Bleveland." Or when Young Thug name-drops Pleaser's—a now-closed strip club that was once sued by its dancers "for allegedly violating federal labor laws." Lines like these highlight the label's deep investment in an Atlanta that's slowly disappearing around them.
Of course, Cleveland Avenue's significance is not lost to anybody who lives in southeast Atlanta. For residents, the corridor forms what sociologists Marcus Hunter and Zandria Robinson might call a "chocolate city." In their 2018 book Chocolate Cities, Hunter and Robinson use the term for "geographic concentrations of Black life… where Black people make and revise place through tight-knit community networks of place makers, cultural production, and the consolidation of political and economic power." I'd argue that this is what's been happening in "Bleveland" for the past 10 years: through rap, the area's bubbled with creativity, and longtime residents like Thug and Peewee Longway have worked to expand the neighborhood's reach beyond the city and across the country. The YSL project has been about place-making as much as it's been about making music; it's built up the corridor into something bigger than the sum of its parts.
So how do people with capital see Cleveland Avenue? For the past 30 years, the area surrounding "Bleveland" has been a perennial target for new development ideas—sometimes at the direct expense of the folks who lived there. When East Point took on a $2.1 million effort to widen Cleveland's western half in the '90s, for example, the city took land from at least 65 residents to do it. A "comprehensive land-use and zoning plan for East Point" developed in the mid-90s emphasized the Cleveland Corridor's development potential; this section of the road also appears in Atlanta's NPU-X Comprehensive Plan (2005) and Hammond Park & Perkerson Neighborhood Blueprint Plan (2020), along with East Point's Cleveland Avenue Master Plan (2006).
Cleveland's eastern half—the side where YSL has the most connections—has also been studied repeatedly by the city of Atlanta. The Southeast Atlanta Corridor Study (1987), Jonesboro Road Redevelopment Plan (1998), Jonesboro Road Redevelopment Plan Update (2006), NPU-Z Redevelopment Plan (2007), and Cleveland Avenue Corridor Study (2009) all argue that this part of southeast Atlanta is ripe for changes in its design and character. If we zoom out further and look at the region as police have mapped it, Zone 3 as a whole has experienced major upheaval in the past 20 years, as urban planners, city officials, and private investors have pushed for the area to be reimagined.
The Cleveland Avenue Corridor Study, published two years before Young Thug's debut mixtape I Came From Nothing, is especially interesting in this context. The study highlights the corridor's "negative perceptions," blaming them mostly on worn-down infrastructure, vacant housing, and crime:
"A significant portion of the standalone convenience and auto-oriented retail establishments along Cleveland Avenue do not appear to be well-maintained and create an atmosphere of blight and neglect. Additionally, residents have stated that the portions of the Corridor, most notably between I-75 and I-85, are perceived as unsafe due to criminal activity."
In the more commercial sections of Cleveland, the study points out that "adult-themed businesses" (like Pleaser's) and hotels known for prostitution and drug use add to this negative image.
From this perspective, the corridor's main strengths seemed to lie in its proximity to the highways, downtown, and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Planners also praised a trend in rising property values in the mid-2000s that was cut short by the Great Recession. So what's the solution? Many of the study's suggestions for Cleveland Avenue focus on new development projects "that can change the current image and development character of the area"—especially mixed-income and mixed-use projects that could "attract new households to the corridor." A gateway to create "a sense of arrival" at Cleveland's eastern end. Wider sidewalks, new traffic signals, townhomes, and office space. A new police precinct.
Atlanta is arguably the center of rap's aesthetic innovation. The city has had a central role in shaping American pop music and culture during the post-Bush era. And "Bleveland" has been an essential part of that innovation: without Cleveland Avenue residents like Young Thug and Lil Keed, the elastic, dynamic voices that now saturate mainstream hip-hop wouldn't have such a solid foundation. Without their hyperlocal approach—their insistence on bringing the southside of Atlanta wherever they go—we wouldn't have a label like YSL, "the biggest family in the world," connected by blood, by their blocks, and by their shared creative goals.
I'm reminded of a line from Thug's 2014 track "Oh Ya," where he tells the listener, "If you not from Bleveland, don't go there." There's this sense of protectiveness in it, a feeling that oozes out of YSL's whole catalog. In the face of a rapidly changing Atlanta, the hip-hop generation has kept this place a holdout. The YSL indictment raises the stakes for these efforts. With the label dismantled, the city could seize the opportunity to insert their own idea of what the neighborhood should be, even if current residents end up displaced. Maybe that started happening when the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA) began demolishing its last projects in 2008—including that one near the corner of Cleveland and Jonesboro, the one where Jeezy wanted to take a vacation, the one where Young Thug got his demeanor.
NORTH ATLANTA & THE SUBURBS: RICH NIGGA SHIT
"Got a bag, move out the hood to Buckhead."—Lil Gotit, "Da Real HoodBabies" (2019)
Although the YSL indictment focuses heavily on the Cleveland corridor, it doesn't stop there—it claims that YSL's members had started "expanding their activities into the surrounding metropolitan Atlanta area." For example, an associate named Antonio Sumlin (a.k.a. "Obama")—who recently took a plea deal—was accused of breaking into a CSX cargo container on NW Marietta Boulevard, just up the road from the Fulton County Jail. This part of Marietta is in Zone 2, Atlanta's northernmost zone. And almost every time Thug's been arrested during his music career, it's happened north of Interstate 20 in wealthier, whiter parts of the metro area with contentious relationships to Atlanta proper. The kinds of places where you're supposed to live when the city makes you successful.
This RICO case isn't even the first time law enforcement has raided Thug's house. In early July 2015, Thug found himself at Perimeter Mall, a 50-year-old shopping center in the north Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody. Most coverage of the raid doesn't say what exactly happened during his mall trip, but an anonymous source told Complex that Thug and his entourage were stopped by security for riding hoverboards. Eventually, a security guard named Christopher May approached Thug and escorted him out of the mall. According to prosecutors, Thug threatened to shoot May in the face, even though he did still leave as requested.
A week later, federal marshals and local police showed up early in the morning to rifle through rooms and cars at Thug's home in Sandy Springs, another northern suburb. When news crews with Channel 2 were tipped off about the raid, they showed up to film. Their footage, though, mostly includes the angry family members who showed up to greet them, including Thug's father. In the video, you can see women telling the cameras to leave, and trying to cover up any potential shots of the address. At the time, Thug was charged with making terroristic threats, along with other felony drug and weapon charges. Interestingly, this threat is included in the YSL indictment as "racketeering activity." Vulture's Zoe Guy suggests that prosecutors are using it to "[portray] Thug as something of a mob boss," and "lend credence to the allegation that the collective was engaged in a criminal conspiracy."
But two years after that Sandy Springs incident, media outlets like TMZ began reporting that police raided Thug's house without a proper search warrant—which led to almost all of Thug's charges getting dropped. His attorney Brian Steel brought this up again in December, arguing that evidence seized in that raid shouldn't be admissible in court. In another arrest from 2017, Thug was pulled over in the Brookhaven suburb for an alleged window tint violation. He ended up with multiple felony weapon and drug charges. But almost two years later, DeKalb County Judge Gregory Adams ruled that "statements, firearms and supposed drugs" from that stop were also inadmissible because "there was no credible evidence presented" that the tint broke state law. Thug's arrests in the north Atlanta suburbs have repeatedly come under scrutiny for underhanded police tactics. When you consider the many criticisms lobbed at the metro area's police in recent years, you might wonder if it comes with the territory.
"Answer this if you say you from the A, right: which zone are you from? What hood did you live? What hospital bed were you born?"— Omerettà The Great, "Sorry Not Sorry" (2022)
Last February, rapper Omerettà the Great stirred the pot heavy on social media with her track "Sorry Not Sorry"—a course correction for anyone who claims to represent Atlanta. Maybe the most controversial part of the song was the chorus, where she runs through a list of cities and neighborhoods in the metro area that aren't Atlanta, to settle once and for all who the "real" locals are. The APS school system? Atlanta. Clayton and Gwinnett Counties? Not Atlanta. Cleveland Avenue, where Lil Keed first met Young Thug? Atlanta. Forest Park, where Lil Keed was born? Not Atlanta.
As the city continues to change, Omerettà calls out to those places that haven't yet been redefined by city planners and developers, those places that embody a spirit of resistance and perseverance in the face of dispossession and violence: "I'm talking bout the 1, the 3, and 4 / the old, not the new Atlanta." But the "new Atlanta" has also struggled with its own questions of allegiance in recent years. On the northside, residents have repeatedly fought to separate from the city, with mixed results—and that history forms a potent subtext when rappers from "old Atlanta" arrive with their new money.
Around 2017, Thug moved from Sandy Springs to a mansion in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood—eventually selling it for another mansion in the same area. Buckhead has a reputation for being Atlanta's whitest and wealthiest neighborhood, home of "the biggest movers and shakers in the city" and almost half of its assessed real estate value. In the past few years, a movement's been growing in Buckhead to de-annex from the city and become an independent suburb—a response to the ways Atlanta proper has supposedly overlooked them for decades.
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Stakeholders within Atlanta have largely opposed this movement, for obvious reasons: they need the tax revenue. A study conducted three years ago, paid for by a business group opposed to de-annexation, predicted that an independent Buckhead could result in "net fiscal losses to the City of Atlanta ranging from an estimated $80 million to $116 million annually." It predicted even bigger losses for Atlanta Public Schools, writing that "the school district coffers would be substantially depleted." Other opponents have argued that the move would exacerbate existing segregation, pointing out that a new city of Buckhead would be 74 percent white, while splitting off almost 20 percent of the city's current population.
For those who do support independence (what some media outlets are calling "Buckxit"), policing is a common throughline. According to the Buckhead City Committee (BCC), the main group of pro-"Buckxit" advocates, a key reason is to regain control over a rising violent crime rate: "Residents are afraid to go out to dinner, get groceries, and even go for a jog. There seems to be no end in sight to the rise in crime and the City of Atlanta has not addressed these issues." The BCC has proposed tripling the number of officers assigned to the neighborhood with a separate police department, adding that "a larger police presence that is allowed to do their job will decrease crime dramatically and quickly."
With that in mind, let's go back to Young Thug. When we consider all these recent tensions over who the city's for, it's significant that the man who former A.P.D. Chief Rodney Bryant called "one of our top offenders" has spent the last five years in Buckhead. Although Georgia state legislators have delayed Buckhead's independence vote for now, it's easy to see how the YSL trial could feed into existing fervor around the neighborhood's crime problem—and potentially reinvigorate the debate over Buckhead sovereignty. Changes in policing are a key way for Buckhead to fully separate itself from Atlanta proper: better control over maintaining its borders, over what kinds of capital are welcome there, and what parts of Atlanta's culture get in.
There's this long-running tension between wealthy Black folks and the suburbs that's ubiquitous in American pop culture. The suburbs embody rap's fundamental crossover appeal—its ability to infiltrate nearly any space and culture—but they also embody America's deep fear that rap can change a place's material conditions, and can open it up to new and different kinds of violence. The rich kids in north Atlanta playing Thug's music coexist with the cops who find him a threat. But that doesn't stop rappers from moving there—it just raises the stakes even more.
This is the first in a two-part series from pop justice, Scalawag's newsletter that wrestles with the way popular culture warps our understanding of justice—and stalls abolition. Read part two here, and subscribe to pop justice for more in-depth perspectives like this.