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‘Most of Them Are Well-Intended’: Atlanta City Council Scrambles to Solve Issues Resulting from Young Black Boys Selling Water on Atlanta Streets

The Atlanta water boys are the young men — mostly teens — who are often seen off some interstate exits around Georgia’s capital city selling bottled water. The issue of the Atlanta water boys has gained a lot of attention recently online and among political officials in Atlanta. Although the intent of the young men is to make a living wage, there have been various altercations that turned dangerous for the water boys and motorists.

Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook expressed empathy for life circumstances that may be driving the teens to take this type of business route, but he also voiced concerns with the level of danger and violence their methods present to the community. “I think most of them are well-intended and trying to earn some income, but we have had kids clipped by cars, we’ve had water boys shot at, we’ve had customers shot at, we’ve had water boys shoot at other water boys, we’ve had people trying to rob water boys and relieve them of their day’s profit. I don’t know how many more warnings we have to get before something really really tragic happens,” said Councilman Shook.

The tragedy the councilman alludes to has already hit the water boy community. In June of 2020, local media outlets reported a shooting in the Midtown area that left an 18-year-old water boy dead after a dispute over $10 and territory. Police arrested a 16-year-old and charged him with murder in this incident. In a more recent incident, a teenage water boy shot and killed a man after a verbal confrontation at the Greenbriar Village shopping plaza in Southwest Atlanta.

In addition to these fatal shootings, drivers have reported various groups of water boys for assault or harassment. This leaves many other water boys who believe they are conducting their business the “right” way — feeling like they’re getting a bad reputation based on a handful of bad apples. While many citizens have voiced their concern with the Atlanta City Council about the dangers of teenagers selling bottled water in the middle of heavy traffic — and have begged the question of is there a “right” way to do this, or should it just be illegal? The city of Atlanta hasn’t gone that far, but it did announce a ban on the sale of water without a permit in the summer of 2020.

The Atlanta water boys selling bottled water off the interstate exit ramp to 10th Street in Atlanta. (Photo captured by Atlanta Black Star’s Brianna Phillips)

“I was the water boys. I grew up in poverty my entire life,” Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown told ABS. The councilman proposed legislation in hopes of supporting the entrepreneurial efforts of the young men. Atlanta City Council met to consider Brown’s legislation earlier this year. It includes a water bottling and distribution municipal enterprise for the city, and it passed unanimously.

“This legislation will look at workforce development component to help put some of the water boys to work. … Some have done some things that have been extremely unfortunate in this city, that we don’t condone, that have scared some residents, so if we can find a way to kind of meet in the middle, and show them we appreciate their entrepreneurial spirit,” said Councilman Brown.

In addition to political leaders weighing in on the water boys, there have also been community leaders who have stepped up to offer a sense of guidance and mentorship to the young men. Atlanta Black Star spoke with Shawn Walton of Everybody Eats Together who shared his involvement with mentoring the water boys. Walton told ABS, “I have a few youth that I work with to mentor and sell waters as well as kind of mentor them on community development. … I just want to be there with them to guide them during this time in Atlanta that’s really hard on them.”

For now, Atlanta drivers continue to deal with the sometimes dangerous business tactics of the water boys. Meanwhile, the community awaits a final resolution from the city council and how the proposed water bottling and distribution facility will curb the dangers of doing business alongside Atlanta interstates and intersections.

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