The kerfuffle started with a poignant, moving, and well-intentioned profile in The Athletic about an ex-con from Baltimore named Antonio Barnes, a devout Colts fan who, the article explained, spent almost all his adult life in prison for his role in a murder when he was part of a notorious drug crew and went by the nickname “Bird.”
The Athletic reporter who wrote the story, Zak Keefer, promoted it on X, posting: “I spent Sunday with a man at his first NFL game in 40 years. Why? He spent 36 years in prison, serving a life sentence, his gang-fueled youth later inspiration for a character on HBO’s ‘The Wire.’”
Barnes’ story and Keefer’s retelling of it are compelling enough to stand on their own, but who can blame a writer for pumping a connection to one of television’s most recognized shows? In the winds of social media, a reference to “The Wire” is a huge gust.
In fact, “The Wire” contained a character named Bird, who appeared in three episodes of the show’s first two seasons. The character, Marquis “Bird” Hilton, was part of a drug crew and also convicted of murder charges. A juicy coincidence.
The glib, breezy shorthand of X often has a way of rendering out nuance and precision, and soon the Barnes of Keefer’s article quickly became the Bird on “The Wire.”
And that’s when the trouble started.
“The Wire” creator David Simon, no slouch on X, quickly pointed out that “Bird is in fact just a character, entirely fictional. And the moniker itself was a simple shout-out by Ed Burns [a former Baltimore homicide detective and co-writer of the show] and myself to a Baltimore street legend whose adventures date to the 1970s. You should correct this. It is false.”
As the brouhaha of comments and retweets landed on X, Simon posted, “Please stop. Nothing in The Wire is based on this gentleman.”
Reached by email, Simon was in “writing mode” and on a deadline for work he actually gets paid to do. But he was generous enough to address the dust-up on X: “There’s a fairly routine amount of people always saying this or that in The Wire is based on them. Even when we threw a shout-out in the show by giving a character a street name, that character did not correspond to any actual person.”
He went to explain the phenomenon of real-life imitating “The Wire”:
“It’s entirely because we set it in a real, specific city and we made specific references to the local throughout. There were plenty of inside jokes for Baltimoreans - Little Melvin Williams playing a church deacon, [former mayor] Kurt Schmoke playing the city health commissioner, etc. And we were tracking with the general history of things with regard to the drug trade. The shout-outs of real street names were a little bump for the people who knew such things, but again, nothing corresponded to reality on any sort of 1-to-1 basis.”
Keefer declined to directly respond a request to talk about his article, deferring to a spokesperson for The Athletic and its parent company, The New York Times. In a not-as-moving and not-as-poignant statement, the spokesperson wrote, “while the story was accurate, the initial social media thread was incorrect and removed. We regret the error.”
Barnes, in his author biography on Amazon, describes himself as “the muse” the creators of the hit show used for the character.
In Keefer’s defense, he did not explicitly say the Bird character on “The Wire” was based on Barnes, although he implied a meaningful connection. Keefer first corresponded with Barnes last decade when Keefer was an NFL writer for The Indianapolis Star and Barnes was an inmate seeking information about the Colts, his favorite team.
The correspondence led to a 2018 story about his love of the Colts, and his days working for the drug kingpin Timmirror Stanfield. The article recounted Barnes’ childhood, his rise up the ranks of Baltimore’s drug gangs, and his eventual conviction in 1987.
Keefer briefly mentioned “The Wire” and the character Bird in the 2018 piece, writing: “Sixteen years later, in the sixth episode of the second season of “The Wire,” a hitman stands trial for killing a state’s witness. The defendant in that scene? They called him Bird.”
Ed Burns, the ex-detective and “Wire” writer, did know Barnes. He led the investigation that resulted in Barnes’ arrest and attended his trial. Using the nickname of Bird in the script was one of many examples of Simon and Burns using real names as the raw lumber to build a cast of characters. The name of character Stringer Bell (played by Idris Elba) was an amalgam of Stringy Reed and Ronnie Bell, “two random drug figures in the 1980s west side projects,” Simon wrote. “We might as well have been randomly picking names from baseball cards, if baseball cards had good street names attached.”
The name of the character Marlo Stanfield, played by Jamie Hector, is a “mangled” reference to the real-life Stanfield and Marlo Bates, another drug figure from the 1980s, Simon wrote.
The mashup approach to names also applied to plot lines. Some were based on actual events, but were diced, altered and reused out of sequence, and happened to characters who did not correspond to real events.
An example is the robbery of a high-stakes poker game in the fourth season by the character Omar Little (played by the late Michael K. Williams), who takes a valuable ring from Marlo Stanfield. The scene parallels an actual card game robbery, in which an expensive watch was taken from a drug dealer who did not serve as a model for Stanfield’s character.
“There is no personal correlation that way,” Simon wrote. “See how this works? Or doesn’t? People seem to grab on to a street name, or surname, or an anecdote from the real history of the drug trade or police history and declare: I’m that guy. Or that was my uncle? Or whatever.”
“It’s a story set in a real place, using local references and shout-outs and even some acknowledgment of the general history. And it’s fictional.”
Simon’s favorite anecdote about a “Wire” character is the one about Avon Barksdale, played by Wood Harris. The character’s name was another shoutout, this time to the real-life gangster Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale. After he was released from prison, the real Barksdale stopped by the set of “The Wire” and asked for Simon.
“I expected he would want to know why I gave a junior street dealer his street name when he was a more notable gangster in his day,” Simon wrote. “Nope. He wanted me to know that his middle name was Avon and that he knew I had based Avon Barksdale on him. I told him I didn’t even know he had a middle name, and that we had named Avon for another player from the seventies and combined it with the Barksdale surname... No, no, he insisted, Avon is me. Whatever. He asked to do some acting and we gave him some lines in a couple scenes.”
“But I went home and pulled out my old files on the real Bodie, which included BPD reports and identification data. Nathan Barksdale. Street name “Bodie.” NMN. Which stands for no middle name. It’s all kind of silly.”
As for the real-life Bird, Barnes told The Athletic he never watched Simon’s show. “No need,” Keefer wrote. “He lived it. "