Walking around Atlanta's most crime-ridden and drugged-out neighborhood with Michael K. Williams and the real-life Omar Little.
The Bluff is a part of Atlanta most people know well to avoid. Named as an acronym for “Better Leave You Fucking Fool,” it’s regularly ranked as the #1 most dangerous neighborhood in the city, and as of 2010 it was #5 in the United States. Even a simple Google search will reveal that if you’re looking for heroin, it’s the place to go, as long as you don’t mind ending up with a gun in your face. Half the time you hear a street name-checked in Atlanta rap, it’s a street somewhere in here.
Snow On Tha Bluff, a new film set entirely on location in this hood, is a self-proclaimed “docu-drama,” mashing up Harmony Korine-like juxtapositions with stylized hood action. It follows the daily activity of real-life dealer and stick-up man Curtis Snow, who actually lives the life displayed in the film. Buzz from the film’s trailer, as well as a video of Curtis talking about the long scar down his neck from when a guy slashed him with a box cutter while trying to get out of an $80 debt, got actor Michael K. Williams, best known as Omar from The Wire, interested in the production, calling Curtis “the real-life Omar.” A couple weeks ago the two met for the first time and I was invited along down to the Bluff to check it out.
We met up on a Thursday afternoon. It was hot and there were eight of us packed into a large black SUV, though we didn’t have to drive too long from the expensive midtown hotel where Michael was staying to the hood. Atlanta is interesting in that cultural and economic divisions can often change from block to block, with hardly any bleed-over between expensive loft apartments and projects. I remember realizing we were getting near the Bluff when passing a group of men standing on the street shouted, “No pictures!” Most of the people we ran into throughout the afternoon not involved with the film made a point of this: Fuck cameras, and fuck you for aiming one at me. Most seemed to want their neighborhood kept to itself. As we came along down streets lined with houses that looked like they’d come through a hurricane, boarded over and abandoned, torn to shit or half burnt down, Michael sat at the window looking out and thinking aloud about the strange shift in terrain. “The trick is not being able to leave the ghetto,” he told us, “the trick is coming back.”
Which is what makes the Snow on Tha Bluff project so compelling: Curtis and his crew seem unflinching in their willingness to make a movie about their dealing and robbing lifestyle. The locations you see in the movie are where he really lives, and while some scenes enact dramatization (the film is ostensibly shot on a camera stolen from some rich kids who’ve come to the Bluff to buy rolls and eight balls), the people and locations you’re brought into are who they are. Curtis has lived in the same neighborhood for 25 years, not far from where Martin Luther King Jr. had once lived.
Curtis and his crew were waiting for us at the bottom of the driveway flanking a long brick squat across from an empty chained-in field. Folks ranging in age from two to possibly sixty-something sat out in the sun, smoking weed and drinking Bud Ice. Curtis was drinking out of a paper cup with bright red liquid in it. The grass was littered with Cash 3 tickets, bottle caps, Taco Bell sauce packets, plastic baggies, and countless blunt wrappers and butts. Michael and Curtis introduced themselves and immediately began to talk about the odd parallel made of their lives: how Curtis lives in daily life what Michael represents on the TV.
Like Curtis’s box cutter scar, Michael has the scar down the middle of his face for which he is well known, the result of being slashed with a razor in a bar fight, which happened to him the same weekend as his first major media appearance. As late as the second season of The Wire he’d been sleeping on the floor in his project apartment, waiting for the chance to rise in the same way Curtis now is hoping to begin with his film, though the reality of Curtis’s ghetto could not have been more real. Stories of friends or neighbors who had been recently killed were regularly delivered in a permeating cloud of weed. When Michael asked Curtis’s four-year-old son, Curtis Jr., what he wanted to be when he grew up, Curtis Jr. answered, “Five.”
“No, tell him what you really want,” Curtis Sr. insisted. The little boy turned his head away shyly and said, “A singer.” Later, while dangling by both hands on the iron railing of a stairwell, he grinned and told me, “I’m a hellraiser.”
After introductions, Curtis and about 15 of his crew led us on a walk through their neighborhood, through some of the places where Snow on Tha Bluff was filmed. I was warned at least three times to be careful of sudden cars appearing in the otherwise deserted streets, as drivers there will gladly plough right through you. Among the mostly vacant and often destroyed homes people passed in small groups migrating seemingly aimlessly. All of them knew Curtis and shouted happily at him, saying they’d definitely be coming by later. There were never any cops; in a way it felt like we were in a version of Hamsterdam, one that spread out over the Bluff’s four square miles.
“Got them Xanax!” a grandfatherly-looking man shouted as we passed, about ten feet from a corner on the sidewalk where new concrete had thirty-plus R.I.P. tags traced into it. We met a gypsy woman all the guys called “Lady Heroin,” who was missing most of her front teeth. We met an old woman who’d been living for years in a makeshift box on the porch of a house with a cocker spaniel puppy, who kindly beckoned us on her porch to see a memorial paper for a relative who had just died. She blessed us all three times before we left.
Despite the surrounding damage, everyone seemed in good spirits. For a place as notoriously dangerous as this one, people’s general tone was positive, and good hearted. We visited a random safe house pretty much in the middle of nowhere, independently run by a kind old woman who regularly gave away free HIV and hep-C testing, as well as free food and clothes and syringes for anyone who came in. One of Curtis’s crew grabbed a handful of free condoms with a smile and said to himself, “I use these in five minutes.” Michael seemed particularly moved by the presence of this establishment, and recorded an impromptu plea to Obama to make this a nationwide program.
I had to remind myself at several times how if I were here alone and beyond cameras it would be a wholly different story, particularly at night. More stories of recent violence, including one about a 15-year-old who was recently killed trying to barricade his home’s door against robbers, reinforced that. “Beggars ain’t beggin’,” Curtis told Michael. “They demandin’.”
Truly, life in the Bluff seemed like urban wilderness, a kind of wild west set in destroyed suburbs. With no local grocery, the only nearby place to buy food or anything else was a corner store or a liquor store, where while visiting the latter to buy water after hours spent in the sun a fight almost broke out. The owner came out from behind the glass to tell Curtis he was not welcome, proceeded as he is his by his own rep. I asked one of the younger guys in Curtis’s crew if he had hopes to ever leave the Bluff, and he kind of grinned and said he wasn’t sure, but that the one way out he knew of was “to use my knowledge, just like Tupac.” Damon Russell, the film’s director, told me later that every local dope boy gets buried by the same funeral home.
The trek ended back in Curtis’s apartment, a small, dark living room with two deep-seated sofas around a big screen TV whose screen had been damaged, making the picture look muffled under yellow oil. A kid’s show about a rabbit played to no one. Two cold McDonald’s burgers sat on the coffee table in their wrappers. Framed paintings of a bed and an angel and an original painting of what I could only think of as Monet’s Waterlillies on lean covered the otherwise light yellow walls. We chilled in the dark and shot the shit. A girl showed up hoping to sell some Xanax, eight for $10, though when she showed Curtis her pills he told her it was Roxicodone and she looked sad and left. “People don’t even know what they have,” Curtis told us. “I got real dope, watch this.” He went into the back room and came back with a bag of Benadryl and other OTC tabs and threw it on the table laughing, then sat down to roll a blunt.
As the afternoon wrapped up, Curtis talked to Michael about his hopes for Snow on da Bluff to do well, though his attitude toward the progression seemed realistic, ready for anything. “Nowhere to go but up,” he told us, slung back on the sofa, smoking. Truly, for a film as uniquely considered as Snow on da Bluff, and as fearless in its willingness to show real elements of the side of a world most people could never set foot in will undoubtedly cause a wide range of reactions. At a local film fest in Atlanta, viewers shouted at the screening, nearly breaking out into a brawl. Snow on da Bluff is raw, it’s ghetto, it’s full of guns and coke and ass, and at the same time provides a look in on some people who only really want a taste of something bigger, a place that’s wholly theirs. In the end, that exploration seems true, regardless of whatever else there is to be said. I could almost see Michael’s eyes in the dark through his sunglasses as he gave the day its final word: “If you got haters, you doin’ something right.”