Rap music is hood music. Both in the sense that its lyrics and rhythms evoke the grim realities and fleeting triumphs of quotidian life in the contemporary urban milieu, but moreso because at least half of all rap songs are about neighborhoods. Be it the hood the rapper is from, the one he sells drugs in, the one he used to sell drugs in, or just one he thinks is particularly rough or particularly fancy, you can't swing a cat in a rap track without scratching a shout-out to some spot or another.
While this is a straightforward affair in cities with distinct internal entities like Compton and the South Side, trying to rep your neighborhood in Atlanta isn't so simple. After Sherman burned the place to the ground, Atlanta was rebuilt by a 100-year succession of carpetbaggers, developers, and politicians on the take, leaving the city's map a baffling, decentralized spidermess that conforms to no known human system of logic. Neighborhoods here are amorphous blobs nobody agrees on the boundaries of, and whose names are only used by realtors to convince buyers they're moving to a nicer part of town than they actually are. Street and place names are changed at whim, or doubled up to the point where there are 71 streets named "Peachtree." Good hoods and bad hoods not only touch each other but sometimes are each other. Only in a city this geographically schizophrenic could you have a lifelong East Atlantan like Gucci Mane say "I'm a East Atlanta nigga" and then IMMEDIATELY follow it with "You an East Atlanta bitch."
Thankfully for the city's rappers and trappers, the Atlanta police divided up this maddening tangle into six patrollable zones. Not only does this provide a concrete place to tell people where you hail from, calling your hood "Zone X" makes Atlanta sound like a Logan's Run–esque dystopia in the not-so-distant future. Which, in terms of what's happening in hip-hop, it actually kinda is.
Zone 1 is home to Bankhead and the Bluff, the titular drug market of the film Snow on tha Bluff. Apart from inspiring Freaknik-era shoulder-dance craze the "Bankhead Bounce," Bankhead is also T.I.'s old stomping ground and the setting for his 2003 genre-christening album Trap Muzik, which may make it the original trap in trap music. Incidentally, Zone 1 is where FDR built the country's first public housing project, Techwood Homes, arguably the first trap in history.
Back when Atlanta was one of America's most dangerous cities, this is where most of that danger was happening. A gang called the Miami Boys brought the crack war up from Florida, funneling coke from the Caribbean straight up I-75 to the Connector and into Zone 1. The city used the 1996 Olympics as a chance to tear down Techwood and drive the Miami Boys out of town, and those who remained were pushed out when the Black Mafia Family moved down from Detroit and started running West Coast coke in exotic rental cars.
While Bankhead has chilled out and now awaits gentrification, the Bluff is still a rough spot for a vacation, even if you're Jeezy. Although these days the violence has given way to more low-key finesses, like letting college kids move in and get comfy for a couple weeks before robbing the bejesus out of them.
Notable Zone 1ers: T.I., Dem Franchize Boyz, Shawty Lo, Curtis Snow, Maynard Jackson, Gladys Knight and two of the Pips, D-Roc of the Ying Yang Twins (and "Bankhead Bounce" fame).
North Atlanta, including Buckhead and Lenox, comprises Zone 2 and is essentially an amusement park for ballplayers' wives and rich lawyers. This is the part of town that earned Atlanta its "Black Hollywood" nickname and was an obvious choice for a drug lord cum aspiring rap mogul like Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory, founder of the Black Mafia Family, to make his hub.
The highways supplied a direct pipeline to every major city on the East Coast and Buckhead provided plenty of venues for Meech and his rap buddies to put their proceeds into circulation. BMF members claim to be the first strip-clubbers to "make it rain," which was as much about showing off as it was a rudimentary form of money laundering, much like the Family's public front, BMF Entertainment. Even though the record label only officially signed one rapper, California transplant Bleu DaVinci, Meech's largesse propped up the careers of a number of local studios and rappers, most famously Young Jeezy, in addition to ruining local nightlife for everybody outside the Family's payroll.
After BMF set up shop and consolidated the city's drug industry, it was not uncommon to see 15-car convoys of Day-Glo Lamborghinis commuting (loudly) between Buckhead's myriad bottle-service bars and strip clubs. Nor for those Lambos to cause an hours-long traffic jam as they all tried to stonedly park and unpark in the same lot.
Due to a number of high-profile parking-lot shootings, the City of Atlanta imposed a drinking curfew on Buckhead, and the cops began looking suspiciously at all the guys with quarter-million-dollar cars and chains with the same three letters. Meech didn't help matters by erecting a billboard proclaiming "The World Is BMF's," based on the one from Scarface. Eventually the DEA figured out that BMF entertainment was more than a record label with a single artist, and took down the whole operation, turning off the money faucet that had kept Atlanta hip-hop in diamonds.
Notable Zone 2ers: The Black Lips, Migos (kinda), the current governor.
For some reason (or no reason, this being Atlanta), here the Zones stop clockwising their way around the city and drop straight down from 12 o'clock to 6. Zone 3 is wedged between the highway and the train tracks running south down to Florida. Atlanta started as a railway town and despite trains being supplanted by planes and automobiles as elsewhere, the tracks are still a vital part of the local economy. See, before it became a more general metaphor for life in the drug trade, the "trap" that trap music is named after was an actual, physical trap used to keep drug buyers from ripping you off. Or to help you rip them off; whichever angle you're playing. Zone 3's narrow, overgrown streets that dead-end into the abandoned railroads make perfect traps: one way in, one way out, no one for blocks to hear you scream or get shot to death.
When we were filming Noisey Atlanta, Trouble from the Duct Tape Army took us to a Zone 3 trap house that was the only building on its block with a roof. It was seriously the set from one of those "after humans" shows. Once you crossed the porch, however, and waited for a person inside to open the door's bank-vault lock system, some ten guys were sitting in a sumptuously air-conditioned living room playing Xbox and doing bench presses with their guns in their laps. It took me a second to figure out what was going on, but what the deal is is: That's their job. They were all "at work." And from the finish of their firearms and jewelry, seems like work's going good.
The fact that a single drug spot can maintain a staff the size of a reputable steakhouse is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit that drives the Atlanta trap scene. Basically, when BMF collapsed it forced everybody back to the trap house to do it themselves. And not just drug dealing. People DIY everything in their trap houses: They record tracks, shoot videos, and found indie record labels like Gucci Mane's 1017 Brick Squad and Future's Freebandz. Zone 3 is like the Silicon Valley of trap-made rap music.
Of the four trap houses rising trap star Peewee Longway keeps in the various zones ("like Monopoly"), his Zone 3 spot, the Lobby, is the one he always mentions. 2 Chainz's studio probably doesn't count as a trap house considering he has $500 worth of candles on the console, but it's here too. Even iLoveMakonnen and his weird little clique of home recorders are Zone 3 kids. It's the zone where shit gets done.
Notable Zone 3ers: 2 Chainz, Ludacris, Yung Joc, Waka Flocka Flame, Trinidad James (ancestrally), Monica, Jeff Foxworthy, T.I.'s character in ATL, Rich the Kid, Southside, Young Thug.
Or maybe Makonnen's from here. Fuck, can't remember. While the police zones aren't as fluid as the neighborhoods they overlay, they do change them every few years. One cop whose beat is right at the border of Zones 3 and 6 told us he's arrested multiple guys with crossed-out tattoos from when their zone switched, though this could be one of those cop stories. Like when the NYPD told the New York Post after the stop-and-frisk ruling that criminals were taunting them with guns in their hoodies. Um, that happened in August, guys. Anybody in a hoodie would have sweat themselves to death.
Anyway, wherever Makonnen's from, Zone 4 is the SWATS, which stands for "Southwest Atlanta something something." This is the zone Goodie Mob, Outkast, and all the other Dirty South folks from the late 90s came out of. Although some of them are technically from East Point, which has its own police force sandwiched between Zone 3 and Zone 4. And is, of course, per its name, on the west side of town. Fucking Atlanta.
Notable Zone 4ers: Killer Mike, Outkast, CeeLo.
Downtown and midtown Atlanta used to look like The Walking Dead after dark, and a bit like a businessman-themed Walking Dead in the day. When Buckhead shut down, the frat crowd headed for East Atlanta while the hip-hop set helped revitalize the intown. Nightmarishly huge clubs like Opera and Harlem Nights opened up featuring flaming champagne bottles, multi-tiered VIP sections catering to 20+ -person entourages, and uniformed Atlanta police officers they hire to—I don't know what. Certainly not to stop anyone from doing drugs. It's entirely possible they're hired just so clubgoers can do drugs in front of a cop.
Right across the highway, a colony of recording studios like Patchwerk and Coach K's Quality Sound run all night, and then down next to the Greyhound station you have institutional titty bar Magic City, where producers take their new tracks directly from the recording booth to the DJ booth for DJ Esco to premiere, bypassing the entire record and radio industries in the process. It's probably the only farm-to-table hip-hop distro operation on earth.
Nobody is really from Zone 5 (though Trinidad James does keep a pied-à-terre overlooking the 75/85 connector), but it's such a studio haven that producers here like Mike Will Made-It, Metro Boomin, Sonny Digital, and TM88 are as famous as the rappers they make beats for. They're like the Wrecking Crew or all those Muscle Shoals session players, and thanks to all the attention they've started forming their own groups, like the Eardrummers and the 808 Mafia, and started releasing their own, un-rapped-over songs. It's like the birth of a whole new genre of music.
Notable Zone 5ers: Trinidad James, Supreeme, Sonny Digital, the ATL Twins, the dancers of Magic City
The zone du jour. The trappest of all possible zones. If you're looking for Gucci Mane, this is the zone he'll be in. Provided he's not in jail (which, presently, he is). Zone 6 is where Young Scooter jugs out them Section 8 houses, where Future drinks like it's Cinco de Mayo, and where all the hoes stare at Rich Homie Quan when he walks through. It's essentially the capital of the "New Atlanta" that magazines like Complex keep going on about. I wanna say it's where Peewee Longway lives, but I have a hard time understanding him through that grill.
The East Side is also a perfect microcosm of Atlanta's development chaos, with ritzy brunch lofts built directly overlooking some of the most dangerous projects in the city and multiple apartment complexes that claim the title "Little Mexico." (Shootings have thankfully come down enough to obviate the old sobriquet of "Little Vietnam.") It's an area in such churning flux the Zone 6 cops are still on the lookout for gangs that disbanded years ago and think new gangs whose members we met in person are just urban legends. Basically, it's the most confusing, fucked-up, exciting trap in America. No wonder God lives here.
Notable Zone 6ers: Gucci, Young Scooter, Future, OJ da Juiceman, Rich Homie Quan (ancestrally), Childish Gambino.