ATLANTA — Long after Akeem Baker escaped the orbit of small-town Georgia, he would continue to rely on his best friend, Ahmaud Arbery . He had relied on him almost from the beginning.
In elementary school, Mr. Baker was heavy and shy, but Mr. Arbery was the funniest guy on the bus, and often the fastest boy on the football field. When choosing teams on the playground, Mr. Arbery made a point of taking Mr. Baker early, so he would not be the last one picked.
Mr. Baker said he learned what confidence looked like simply by watching his friend. He took the confidence with him when he left his small hometown Brunswick, Ga., for Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he thrived in a school that produced Spike Lee and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Years later, after the boys had grown into men, Mr. Baker, 26, found himself in Boston, where he was pursuing a master's degree, depressed and worried that he was losing his passion for a career in medicine. He called Mr. Arbery, who had always felt much more like a brother, back in Brunswick. "When times get hard," Mr. Arbery would tell him, "you've got to lean on chaos and come through a champion."
The hardest time would come on Feb. 23, when Mr. Baker, lying on his bed in New York City, received a text message from Mr. Arbery's sister: "We lost Maud," she wrote.
Shortly after 1 p.m. on that Sunday, two white men in a pickup truck pursued Mr. Arbery , who was black, as he ran through their suburban neighborhood, just outside Brunswick. After a brief confrontation, one of the men shot and killed Mr. Arbery, 25.
Mr. Arbery's family believes he was out for a jog. One of the pursuers told the authorities that the two men thought Mr. Arbery was the perpetrator of a string of break-ins in the area. The men were interviewed and released, and more than two months passed without an arrest.
Then a Brunswick lawyer leaked a graphic video of the fatal confrontation. Outrage surged around the nation, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case and soon the pursuers, Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, were each charged with murder and aggravated assault.
The lawyer for Mr. Arbery's family called his killing a lynching.
Georgia's attorney general, Chris Cox, on Sunday formally requested that the United States Department of Justice investigate the handling of the case.
Mr. Baker was also incensed and wounded. "They treated him as if he was game," Mr. Baker said. "As if they were hunting game."
Brunswick, a city of 16,000, is the seat of coastal Glynn County, a slow-moving place studded with beauty and complication. The placid nearby barrier islands are called the Golden Isles, while the poverty rate in the city of Brunswick is nearly 38 percent. But it is a place where you can see the stars at night, and Mr. Baker said he was proud to have grown up there.
He and Mr. Arbery attended an integrated high school, and he said they felt at home, and generally at peace, with their white classmates and neighbors. At the same time, Mr. Baker said, they were aware of the threats they faced in a country that is still dangerously riddled with bias toward young African-American men.
"But it wasn't really like living with fear," Mr. Baker said of their childhood. "If we would see a white person or something, we weren't thinking, 'This person absolutely hates us,' or 'That person has evil intent.'"
They were raised in apartments in a mostly black neighborhood. From an early age, Mr. Baker wanted badly to be friends with Mr. Arbery, who carried himself with effortless charm. Mr. Baker knew that Mr. Arbery always seemed hungry, so he brought extra Snickers bars and cookies to the bus stop. It worked.
Mr. Arbery was a natural mimic, and Mr. Baker remembered laughing at his impressions on weekday mornings while sitting next to him on the bus. Mr. Arbery was also dazzling on the empty lot where they played a one-man-against-the-world football game called "hot ball."
Mr. Arbery preferred to play barefoot, and patterned his moves on Reggie Bush, the fleet and nimble N.F.L. running back. "Quick cuts, spin and juke moves, step backs," Mr. Baker said. "It just left you in awe."
Much of their childhood was spent outside, drinking water from a spigot and playing ball until dark, and eventually Mr. Baker trimmed down and became a good athlete in his own right. Soon they were both linebackers for the Brunswick High School Pirates.
Mr. Arbery won accolades for his talent, and dreamed of playing for the N.F.L. Mr. Baker, who loved to read, dreamed of becoming a doctor.
Mr. Baker got his driver's license first. The two men would drive around their little town in an old Buick Century sedan, rapping together. Mr. Baker, partial to the dense, thorny lyrics of the rapper Kendrick Lamar, was the more fluid wordsmith. Mr. Arbery tended to provide the sounds of encouragement — the "oohs" and "oh, yeahs" — as Mr. Baker freestyled. It was a good fit.
Understand the Killing of Ahmaud Arbery
The shooting. On Feb. 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot and killed after being chased by three white men while jogging near his home on the outskirts of Brunswick, Ga. The slaying of Mr. Arbery was captured in a graphic video that was widely viewed by the public.
The victim. Mr. Arbery was a former high school football standout and an avid jogger. At the time of his death, he was living with his mother outside the small coastal city in Southern Georgia.
The suspects. Three white men — Gregory McMichael, 67, his 35-year-old son, Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan, 52 — stand accused of murdering Mr. Arbery . They have also been indicted on federal hate crime charges . The men told authorities they suspected Mr. Arbery of committing a series of break-ins.
The trial. With an unsettling video set to play a starring role in court, the case bears similarities to that of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer found guilty of murdering George Floyd. The trial is likely to address issues such as vigilantism and the role racism played in the three defendants' actions.
The jury. After an extraordinarily long process, 12 jurors in the case were selected. The jury, which is made up of residents of Glynn County, where more than a quarter of the population is Black, only includes one Black person .
While Mr. Baker made plans for college, Mr. Arbery planned to stay home. He had a job at McDonald's. But he was not jealous. He told Mr. Baker, "I'm going to see you at the top."
Mr. Baker thrived at Morehouse, even though he arrived on academic probation because of his lower standardized test scores. He said he had something to prove. He called Mr. Arbery regularly, letting him in on the broader college world he was immersed in, describing to him the myriad varieties of black experience that came out of the Morehouse student body.
When Mr. Baker struggled with a general chemistry class, he called Mr. Arbery, who would buck him up as though they were in the locker room, down 14 points at halftime: "He told me when situations get hard, you've just got to get hard with it. In the end, you don't just go through it. You grow through it."
Mr. Baker graduated in 2016 with a degree in biology, then went to Boston University to work on a master's degree in medical sciences, with a goal of continuing to medical school. But he grew depressed and began to doubt his long-held dream. He returned to the Brunswick area and took a job at a nearby chemical plant.
Mr. Arbery had left town briefly after high school to attend a technical school but had eventually returned to the Brunswick area, too. Mr. Baker said Mr. Arbery had recently got a job doing landscaping work with his father and was also working at a truck wash.
The friends were busy and did not see each other as much anymore, but it was clear to Mr. Baker that Mr. Arbery was also struggling. He was still living with his mother. He was feeling worn down by the 9-to-5 life. He had been convicted of shoplifting a couple of years ago.
Mr. Arbery knew that his friend was the better rapper, and he encouraged him to drop the sciences and to pursue a career in music. With that in mind, Mr. Baker left the Brunswick area again, this time for New York City, in August 2019, to pursue a hip-hop career.
The last time he spoke with Mr. Arbery was a few months ago. It was one of those cursory exchanges of new contact information, with a promise to talk later, at more length.
On Friday, hundreds of protesters packed the streets of Brunswick, calling for justice and calling out Mr. Arbery's name.
Across the country, thousands of runners used the hashtag #IRunWithMaud as they ran 2.23 miles — representing the date of Mr. Arbery's death — on the date that would have marked his 26th birthday.
Mr. Baker was with Mr. Arbery's family at his grave site. It was Mr. Arbery's birthday.
Now they were both 26. A pandemic had upended the world, and Mr. Baker felt adrift. Sometimes he wished to be called a musician, and sometimes he did not. He was unsure what he would become or how he would get there. He knew he needed a friend's advice.
He said he was still talking to Mr. Arbery.
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