The Street Execs studio in northwest Atlanta is notorious for producing quality hip-hop and firearms discharges. Last week, rapper Bankroll Fresh, whose mother named him Trentavious White, was shot and killed at the studio. Police are saying nothing about who might have done this and why, and whether it was deliberate or whether Mr. White, whose career was on a real upward track, simply got in the way of a bullet fired at someone else or at random. Gossip sites are saying plenty, with their usual close regard for accuracy and detail.
I’m not going to comment on Mr. White’s death except to say that all homicide is the culmination of tragedy. I write murder mystery fiction, and I know my limits, and my limits are well short of making compelling fiction about the Atlanta hip-hop scene. I’m a middle-aged white guy who likes classic rock, and while I might well create a compelling plot if I spent enough time lurking on major hip-hop sites, I’m still going to come off like an ass, because no non-native speaker masters another language in middle age. Except Vladimir Nabokov, and I ain’t him. I have a good enough ear that I can put a hip-hopper in a story as a witness or secondary character, but I can’t make a story about hip-hop. And never mind the “cultural appropriation” argument, which is just dumb: I write about Atlanta, and while I’m no hip-hop fan, it’s an essential part of the city.
The only time I’ve tried is a story I’ve yet to publish called The Mothership Connection, and it works because most of what happens in the story takes place a decade or more before, and the plot isn’t really about hip-hop. I’m going to excerpt it over the next week or so here as an exercise in self-reflection: am I, in fact, too white to write a story about rappers? You be the judge.
The Mothership Connection
“But you have to admit it’s a beautiful morning for a walk in the park,” said Detective Diana Siddal.
“Ask me again after I’ve had a cup of tea,” said Inspector Mustapha Alawi. He helped Diana up the embankment and onto the flat, wide grassy path that was being transformed into the Atlanta Beltline. From this point on, there was a wider concrete path, still so new as to be white rather than gray. Once the funding got sorted out, there would be a streetcar running alongside the path, linking up a lopsided circle around downtown about three miles in diameter and hopefully turning some of the ghettos on the southwest side into functioning neighborhoods once again. For now, the city was racing to pave the quadrant in the affluent northeast section, so white yuppies could ride thousand-dollar bicycles from their already-gentrified neighborhoods up to Piedmont Park.
“What’s not to like? Here we are, spending part of our workday enjoying the outdoors.” She twirled around, arms outstretched. To their north, the Beltline was elevated above the buildings on either side: they could see off to their left the cluster of towers at the center of Midtown, gleaming in the light of the rising sun to their right.
“Yeah, yeah; it’s spring and the chickens are clucking or whatever.”
After a quarter-mile of walking, Diana bouncing and chattering all the while, they got to the end of the new pavement. For a hundred yards ahead of them, the ground was graded and gravel laid down; off to the side was the heavy equipment, with a cluster of guys in helmets and orange vests around it. Beyond that, the right of way was still covered in decades-old brush as it narrowed to pass under the Virginia Avenue bridge before crossing Monroe into the park. They couldn’t see the towers, because these were now blocked by the Midtown Promenade shopping center, but as they got closer, Mustapha could see that the construction guys all had steaming cups and there was a big plastic urn on the Bobcat’s fender.
The foreman stepped out to meet them “Clocked you for the cops right away,” he said. “Come on down here and we’ll–”
Diana held up a hand. “My partner’s not quite a cop yet. Please give him coffee, first.”
Twenty minutes later, they were at the far edge of the gravel. The foreman pointed. “That brush hasn’t been cut in years. There’s all kinds of shit in there: not just used condoms and empty beer bottles, but washers and dryers, car parts.” He led them along a faint trail twenty yards or so back into the brush, then pointed. “But this is our first grave. Called 911 right then and there, left the site alone. Didn’t want to contaminate the crime scene.”
Mustapha saw an irregular rectangle hacked out of the earth, maybe eight by ten feet in area, with piles of freshly excavated dirt around its perimeter. He took a few steps forward, craned his neck. The hole got smaller and more regular with depth; it bottomed out maybe four feet below the ground level. The packed red Georgia clay was scored with shovel marks.
Diana spoke before he could. “You moved the body? Where is it?” She looked around, but around the hole the brush was undisturbed.
“No,” said the foreman. “That’s the way we found it.”
See? No hip-hop yet. You won’t hear a word about hip-hop until 2000 words in, either. Because this story is about murder.