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More than rough apartments where Pharrell’s music love began

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — Dot Miles stood on the sidewalk outside her building at the Atlantis Apartments holding a few decades-old photographs of a wedding.
One shows a boy in a white tuxedo holding a ring-bearer pillow. Another is of his parents getting married. The last shows the boy in the same outfit, a pink boutonniere attached to his lapel. The photos were taken sometime in the late ’70s at Mount Olive Baptist Church on Birdneck Road.
Miles remembers the boy well. Quiet, sweet and musical at an early age.
“He would play drums on everything he could find,” she said.
That child grew up to be Pharrell Williams. The Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and producer responsible for such hits as “Happy” once lived at the Atlantis Apartments complex, a sprawling, subsidized-housing community near the Oceanfront.
And while he didn’t stay there long – he was just 7 when his family moved to the suburbs – the place apparently made quite an impression on him.
Earlier this year, numerous entertainment websites reported that Pharrell is co-producing a movie musical inspired by his childhood in Virginia Beach.
The title: “Atlantis.”
It’s said to be a Romeo and Juliet style story with a musical element.
Jackie Jones, 25, who has lived at the apartment complex all his life, thinks it’s cool Pharrell is making a movie about the place.
But life in Atlantis is not exactly the makings of a Hollywood musical, he said. Gunshots, drugs and violence are common. Many have lived their entire lives there while dreaming of getting out.
“It’s hard,” Jones said. “It’s a real struggle.”
Still, he said, he has many good friends there.
The community was built in 1970 for low-income residents. It consists of 208 apartments spread across 19 buildings.
There’s playground equipment in a couple of spots and a basketball court in the back. A community center – where residents can use computers and host events like baby showers – sits in the middle.
Miles, 74, has lived there most of her life. She was friends with Pharrell’s family and attended his parents’ wedding.
“His whole family lived here,” she said. “I knew his mom, grandma, granddad, dad, aunts and uncles.”
“One of his aunts still lives here,” she said, pointing in the direction of her apartment.
Friends Rasheem Edmonds and Jay’von James, both 18 and recent graduates of First Colonial High School, said they enjoyed growing up at Atlantis and think the community gets a bad rap. The two now work for a nearby linen and equipment rental service.
There were always lots of kids to play with, Edmonds said. Local church groups sponsored after-school activities and field trips that were popular and well-attended.
Shardae Alleyne remembers participating in step dance teams, Girl Scouts and arts and crafts programs at the community center. Sometimes the kids would put on shows for the adults, she said. Now an adult herself, Alleyne has her own apartment and is raising two children there.
“Most of the people I grew up with are still here,” she said.
In the evenings, when the weather is nice, adults often gather outside their apartments, pulling chairs out to the sidewalk to sit. Children run and chase each other in the grass.
Pharrell, who is 44, still has a house in Virginia Beach – a waterfront one located on Wolfsnare Creek – in addition to his home in Los Angeles. He has visited Atlantis occasionally over the years, and has sent turkeys to be delivered to residents there at Thanksgiving.
Calls and emails to his agent and 20th Century Fox, which is developing the project, were not returned. A message left for Pharrell’s mother also was not returned, and an aunt who still lives at Atlantis declined to talk to a reporter.
In 2008, Pharrell created a charitable foundation called From One Hand to AnOTHER, which donates school supplies, and offers after-school educational programs and summer camps for at-risk students. His mother, Carolyn, a retired teacher who lives in Chesapeake, is chairman of its board.
During a visit to Atlantis with a reporter from the Dateline television program in 2005 – before he was a household name – Pharrell singled out the apartment building where he lived: 1021 Atlantis. The report said he had not been back there since he was 7, when his family moved to a suburban home.
He pointed to the door stoop where he said he would sit each day.
When asked what would be going on around him, Pharrell said: “Hustling. Like, there used to be drugs out here all the time.” And if his family hadn’t moved from there, what would have happened to him? “I’d probably be dead,” he said. “Or in jail, or on drugs, right?”
While he spoke of the stark realities of living in a place like Atlantis in that interview, he has on many occasions talked fondly of his years in Virginia Beach. Pharrell has often credited his teachers for encouraging him and making him believe he could be successful.
During an interview with students at New York University in 2015, he told the audience about his early years there.
“I grew up in these apartments called Atlantis Apartments,” Pharrell said. “Seriously. And it was probably the most fun I ever had in my life.”
Music was a big factor in that, he said.
“Music was everywhere, you know, it was like air, it was like you go outside to hear music, you are in the house, someone’s playing music. It was just music was just like second nature.”
It was especially prevalent in his own apartment, he said, where his mother often had the stereo on, and at his grandmother’s, where gospel tunes were a favorite.
He also loved the music at church: At Mount Olive Baptist with his mother, and New Jerusalem Church of God in Christ with his father.
How much those memories will factor into the movie is anyone’s guess. Few details have been released so far.
Jackie Jones and some other current residents would like to see filming at Atlantis.
“He should put people from out here in it,” said 26-year-old Dominique Dillard.
Jones smiled and agreed.
“There’s talent out here.”