American Culthoppers

By

The high season in Chiang Mai falls between November and February, after the monsoon rains and before the burning season, when farmers in the surrounding valleys set fire to old rice stalks and smoke shrouds the mountains that ring the northern Thai city. For four months, when the air is cool and dry and clear, the city sees a surge in so-called digital nomads, migratory laptop-toting entrepreneurs who make their livings online and can work from anywhere.

Ten years after the movement was birthed by Tim Ferriss’s blockbuster 2007 best seller The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich, an ever-expanding archipelago of digital-nomad hubs has arisen; Medellín, Berlin, and Ubud are among the most popular. But none more so than Chiang Mai. Because of the hospitable weather; low cost of living; tasty food; and abundance of cafés, co-working spaces, free Wi-Fi, and other digital nomads, Chiang Mai is an attractive launchpad for a virgin business-minded vagabond, a place where you can buy time to bootstrap your start-up. Virtually every day in Nimman, a neighborhood west of the old city favored by this tribe, there are meetups and networking groups and evening get-togethers, with a vibe that’s half-hippie, half-hustler. It’s a place full of people looking to radically change their lives, and so inevitably it has a robust personal-development scene.

When I visited, there were transplants who’d defaulted on student loans and planned never to return to the U.S., and other people who were there in search of affordable health care. There were groups devoted to ayahuasca and microdosing and bitcoin and salsa dancing. A notable percentage of nomads seemed to have at least flirted with different parts of the manosphere. (Disenchanted longer-term expats have taken to calling the preponderantly bachelor-male nomads Bromads and Digital Gonads.) And there were also, of course, a lot of people working many more than four hours a week to get businesses off the ground. “I tell my friends that living in Chiang Mai feels like a giant Burning Man,” Janie Lin, a 34-year-old retired professional poker player from Canada by way of Malta, told me. Nimman teems with Westerners in search of fresh starts and grand pursuits, and Chiang Mai feels like nothing so much as a frontier town, a pit stop toward some version of the American Dream or else a portal to opt out of it altogether.

Aaron Atlas, a 35-year-old from Indiana, joined the seasonal influx last fall. He began showing up at events and interviewing people for a book he said he was writing about the movement. By late October, his brother, Travis, who’d most recently been in Brazil, had joined Aaron in Chiang Mai. The brothers were identical twins — lanky and youthful-looking — and inseparable. “They kind of do fancy handshakes,” an Australian nomad based in Chiang Mai told me. “You just go along with it.”

They quickly became well known, and well liked, in the campuslike community, though some were a little put off by the pair. Ron Tuch, an Army vet who now plays poker professionally, among other ventures, recalls Travis talking, right after meeting him, about a mutual Facebook friend and how he’d “almost had his way with her. I’m thinking, like, Dude, this is a friend of mine. At first he seemed okay, but it took all of about five minutes before I knew something was off about him.” But even Chiang Mai’s skeptics didn’t foresee the events that, just months after the brothers’ arrival, would lead to their stormy departure.

In the days before the twins’ sudden exit, the community was filled with outlandish rumors. The brothers were con men, predators. Atlas wasn’t their real last name. They might even be … Republicans. In a community dedicated to reinvention, had the Atlas brothers gone too far?

This, as it turned out, was the story of their lives. As a childhood friend of the Atlas brothers says, “They’re sincere. They’re gullible. They’re zealots. Talented losers. Travis and Aaron are the type that would join every cult in the world, but they are rebels, so they won’t stay long, and they cause trouble. The Thai nomads are a cult. Travis and Aaron’s whole life has been setting them up for this, and they still didn’t see it coming.”

The Atlas brothers were 21st-century Zeligs who by that point had stumbled through a modern catalogue of faddish enthusiasms — from juicing to multilevel marketing to the tea party — repeatedly morphing their personalities as they alit in one community after another, only to become disillusioned or get unceremoniously ejected. Each time, they would set out for a next destination, new American pilgrims of a sort.

Illustration: Jim Stoten

Travis and Aaron Hankins grew up in Columbus, Indiana, with a single mother who worked in the radiology department at a local hospital. They lived with her mother, who cleaned houses, and her father, a tattooed Navy vet, and the older couple, as Aaron would later write on his since-deleted personal blog, resented spending their retirement raising more children. Growing up poor, with no father, no religion, and an unhappy home life, the twins struggled to define themselves. A lot of their friends were black, and Aaron, in particular, related to what he saw as their mistreatment. “All my friends were in the same shoes,” Travis told me. We were speaking via a phone app, and he declined to say where he was. “We had basketball. That was the thing that kept me out of trouble.”

Their senior year of high school, Aaron had a religious conversion experience. It hadn’t been the easiest year for him. He’d spent a weekend in jail for shoplifting, after which he decided to throw away most of his clothing. He led a unity march of what his brother says was more than 1,000 students from area high schools, until police “came and threatened to arrest Aaron.” On graduation day, Aaron painted his robe with a cross, a pair of praying hands, a religious slogan (“Seek God. Let Jesus be your savior”), and a list of friends who weren’t graduating because they’d dropped out or been expelled. After he refused to wear a plain robe, the school banned him from the event. Travis, in solidarity with his brother, refused to go onstage. “We try to do things to make a difference, to help people,” says Travis, “and then there’s people to shut us down.”

No one in the Hankins family had been to college, but Aaron, who took several AP classes, “was driven, he wanted to go to college and change his life,” Travis says. After Aaron filled out applications to Indiana University for both himself and his brother, they were accepted into a federally funded program for low-income, first-generation college students, alongside mostly black and Hispanic students, who formed their core of friends for the next few years.

The twins initially thrived at IU. Travis, for the first time in his life, got good grades. They called themselves the Yin Yang Twins, a nod to both the rap group and their complementary strengths — Travis was more outgoing, while Aaron was cerebral — and performed synchronized dance moves at parties. While Travis socialized, Aaron studied, double-majoring in African-American Studies and sociology, receiving several prestigious scholarships and writing his honors thesis on “Choosing an Unpaved Path: A Look at the Factors Affecting College Aspirations Among First Generation, Low-Income Males,” and at times feeling aligned with the black struggle to the point of using “us” and “our” when referring to the African-American community. When he stood up and did this at one Black Student Union meeting, a friend recalls, it didn’t go over well: “The only way I can describe it is like screeching on a chalkboard every time he said it.”

The offended response to Aaron’s racial confusion left him feeling rejected. Travis, meanwhile, watching a late-night TV preacher during his senior year, was saved, as his brother had been four years earlier.

Travis told Aaron he thought they should get a Bible. They joined a Bible-study group on campus through the predominantly black Second Baptist Church. “In these sociology classes, I started bringing up God,” Travis says. “That’s when things started getting really hard for us at IU, when we started being open about our faith.” Friends from the scholarship program found themselves arguing with Aaron as he now blogged from a conservative perspective about black issues (sample post: “How Homosexuality Has Destroyed Black Communities”).

After college, the twins spent a year at the Kanakuk Institute, a Bible ministry school in Branson, Missouri, where they considered the other students too morally flexible (for, among other sins, watching the TV show 24). Having earlier become involved with one extremist Christian church — World of Pentecost, which practices speaking in tongues — they fell for another, the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a homeschooling-focused ministry founded by Bill Gothard, who resigned after allegations of sexual abuse, and which ex-members have called a cult. In each case, the brothers followed a similar arc: devotion followed by rapid disillusionment and a dramatic rupture. At Kanakuk, Travis and Aaron decided to skip class on their birthday, because “we realized they were going to make us get up and dance, and girls would kiss us,” Travis says. “I was like, ‘I only want my wife kissing me.’ ” When they didn’t show up that day, “all the students rose up as a mob and said we should be kicked out.” (A friend says this is hyperbole.) They stuck it out another semester, but by then, Aaron was beginning to get interested in politics.

Via the Young Republicans, the brothers had become enamored of Mike Pence, a fellow Christian from their hometown, who was then a congressman. They became leaders of a Draft Pence for President movement, traveling around the country promoting conservative student groups on college campuses, ending up in South Carolina, a key primary state. There they spent a year “pushing Mike Pence really hard for president,” Travis says. When they realized Pence wasn’t going to make a serious bid for it, Aaron began exploring a Republican-primary run for Congress in the 2008 election back in Indiana, but dropped out in exchange for a position heading the right-to-life committee for the front-runner. When Aaron became the leader of a local group with the same mission, the brothers were once again zealous to the point of antagonizing. They wanted to make the organization exclusively Evangelical. Eventually, most board members resigned in opposition. During this period, the brothers wouldn’t wear jeans, watch R-rated movies, or date women. More than one person likened their appearance to “Mormons.”

Aaron was discouraged by his short-lived candidacy, but Travis, a more natural candidate, decided that he would run for the same office in the 2010 cycle, as an outsider on a platform far to the right on both social issues and the role of government. To their old friends at IU, who’d been in the same government-funded program that had allowed them all to become the first college graduates in their families, the turn was hurtful.

But 2010 was a year when voters wanted change, and the brothers had a knack for that. In a primary race against a moderate Establishment figure and a conservative Establishment figure, Travis discerned an opening as a tea-party candidate, and he proved a forceful campaigner who could speak in preacherly cadences. “They took what Pence did and put it on steroids,” a longtime Indiana Republican county chairman says. “Travis was running against two very accomplished people, and they basically nuked each other, and he came up the middle.” The moderate candidate, Todd Young, beat Travis by just 1,200 votes and went on to win in the general election; he is now the junior senator from Indiana.

In 2012, Travis ran again, this time in Pence’s old district. He lost to a former state representative in the primary, but it was close. It was also the high point of the twins’ strict-repression era. Several summer interns from that campaign recalled friction over the brothers’ legalistic approach to Christianity. Male and female interns were forbidden from fraternizing and got in trouble for going to Buffalo Wild Wings together. “I always thought they were false prophets,” a Columbus politician told me. “Especially here in the Bible Belt, a lot of people use Christianity.”

The twins’ journey to Chiang Mai was kindled in the ashes of Travis’s 2012 campaign. “To say they were burnt out and depressed would be an understatement,” a longtime friend told me. The brothers tried to start their own church but couldn’t get traction with it. They were also broke. Three properties they’d bought — more as a long-term investment than a significant source of income — went into foreclosure. Aaron had won a seat on the Columbus City Council, where he was a formal presence, always in suit and tie, and the only one of the seven-member, all-Republican body who never joined them to caucus. But like his brother, he felt spent. The careful Christian life hadn’t brought about all that Travis and Aaron had dreamed of.

And yet what happened next a friend explains in theological terms: The brothers were “hyper-Calvinists,” meaning they believed that salvation, once bestowed, can’t be revoked. Since this belief obviates personal accountability, it can be used to justify anything you do as God’s will. For the brothers, this meant a new life — of hedonism.

In the summer of 2013, eager for a clean break, they moved to Seattle. They got into juicing, to lose weight. They pursued women for the first time in almost ten years. They refereed soccer tournaments. They couch-surfed. They moved to Fort Lauderdale and did sales for a multilevel-marketing business called Dynasty Success, for which they wore black suits, black shirts, and red ties. They also acquired a new name. Travis started going by Travis Atlas on Facebook and encouraged Aaron, who had literary aspirations, to use Atlas as his pen name. “I tell people I’m Travis Hankins,” Travis told me, “the first thing they do, they Google and see my run for Congress.”

But they still itched to do something big. While they were living near Miami and telling people they were working on a documentary about tennis, a woman Aaron was dating gave him a copy of The 4-Hour Workweek. Aaron wanted to write books (he would later publish an ebook, How to Shoot Better Than Stephen Curry), and, dreaming of a more writerly life, flew off to Madrid and Paris for a few months. Travis, who had undefined entrepreneurial ambitions, also read Ferriss’s book and started listening to his podcast, then found Travel Like a Boss, a podcast by a prominent Chiang Mai digital nomad named Johnny FD. He began to make plans to move to Chiang Mai and become a drop shipper (an e-commerce middleman role, popular among digital nomads, in which you pocket a tidy profit for marketing a product through an internet storefront, while the manufacturer sends the product directly to the customer). But when he listened to a Ferriss podcast about Austin and its start-up scene, Texas seemed an easier step than Thailand. He worked for months in Austin to launch a company that would market itself to businesses to help relocating employees acclimate to the city — monetizing, essentially, his desire for a sense of belonging. Eventually Aaron joined him there. Following the Ferriss plan leaves, by definition, time for other pursuits. For the Atlas brothers, this meant making rap videos and uploading them to YouTube. As the Atlas2 Crew, they performed “I Need a Black Girl,” written by Aaron. (Sample lyric: “Look at what I found / It’s the juicy brown round.”)

But the brothers were dissatisfied. “We kept spinning our wheels in America,” Travis says, suggesting they had reached the limits of reinvention on their native soil. Aaron, wanting a congenial environment in which to write, went to Chiang Mai first. Travis, meanwhile, heard a podcast about something called Entrepreneur House in Brazil: It was a group of guys living, working, and playing together on the beach. But it was for entrepreneurs already making $50,000 to $100,000 a year, so Travis conceived of something similar for people like him who were just starting out. “That’s what I needed, but I really wanted to help others do the same.” He called it Digital Nomad Campus. Travis moved to Rio de Janeiro to launch it, only to discover that Ipanema Beach was expensive, unsafe, and had slow internet service, so he shipped off to join his brother in Thailand.

Digital nomadism, as an update to both the old hippie trail and get-rich-quick fantasies, unsurprisingly attracts dreamers and utopians, people prone to feelings of betrayal by those who don’t live up to their own ideals. But an idea had already taken root in Chiang Mai that the digital-nomad scene had itself become a kind of pyramid scheme, perpetuated by gurus selling “the digital-nomad lifestyle” to newbies who would turn around and recruit the next wave of innocents abroad. “There are a lot of guys selling shovels in the gold rush,” says a now-jaded Chiang Mai digital nomad. And the Atlas twins, veteran searchers for a cause to call their own, had developed a hard-won understanding of the benefits of being a guru.

Travis, in particular, energetically branded himself as a personality, cold-approaching prospects at popular co-working spaces in Nimman and inviting them to a weekly event, Digital Nomadness, featuring a series of guest speakers, on how to make money from YouTube, from shipping things through Amazon, and from self-publishing on Kindle. He published an ebook, Digital Nomad: 10 Keys to Becoming a Digital Nomad, and began recruiting prospects to sign up for Digital Nomad Campus, which he was positioning as an “accelerator” to connect aspiring digital nomads with established ones.

Karl Chmielowiec, a 21-year-old who’d been living in his parents’ basement in Montreal, smoking pot every day and reeling from being dumped by his girlfriend, had “set a quest for myself to go to Southeast Asia and become a man” and was working on his laptop in a Chiang Mai café one day when Travis approached him. They immediately connected. (“I’m ENFP,” Chmielowiec recalled, abbreviating his Myers-Briggs category: extroverted intuitive feeling perceptive. “That’s also Travis’s personality type.”) Though Travis planned to charge $1,500 for the monthlong course, Chmielowiec and four other aspiring digital nomads agreed to pay $300 each for a beta version, and the five novitiates joined Travis and Aaron on a predawn team-building hike up Doi Suthep, a nearby mountain. “We soon found out that this digital-nomad thing wasn’t about the Digital Nomad Campus but about us,” Chmielowiec says — about manufacturing exactly the kind of community for which the brothers had long yearned: “ ‘Let’s make this fun YouTube channel, get a house, a bunch of guys teaching other guys to make a business, pick up women, overcome issues that men have.’ ”

But given the brothers’ own newness to the scene, there was a low rumble of skepticism that they were marketing an expertise to which they had no credible claim. The first two of the ten chapter-length “keys” to becoming a digital nomad, according to Travis’s $2.99 Kindle ebook, were the resoundingly basic “Read Tim Ferriss’s Book: The 4-Hour Workweek” and “Listen to Podcasts.” And negative sentiment about the Atlas twins rose sharply when Aaron posted in Chiang Mai Digital Nomads, a private Facebook group with more than 20,000 members, touting a Myers-Briggs “self-discovery” workshop for 300 Thai baht, or roughly $9 (enough to lodge you serviceably for a night in Chiang Mai). Other members of the group mocked him for charging for a tool — a test to determine which of 16 personality types one was — that was freely available online. The group also became apoplectic that, for a related entrepreneurial support group the brothers were marketing, there was a fee to join, a fee to attend each session, a fine for not meeting one’s weekly goal, and a 500-baht penalty for missing a session.

A debate over whether the Atlases were peddling a scam quickly escalated to include allegations about the twins themselves. Soon, a doxxing began. Digital nomads posted WhoIs information for the Digital Nomad Campus website, revealing that it had been registered by Travis Hankins. Next they linked to Indiana political blogs about a pair of chubby, buttoned-down, bowl-cut-haired twins named Aaron and Travis Hankins, both of whom had run for Congress years earlier; the Facebook group seemed uncertain whether these were the same people, given how different they appeared from the lean, more hiply styled brothers in Chiang Mai. Another nomad located a clip of Aaron Atlas “trying to sell himself as a male prostitute live on Periscope” — in the clip, seemingly tongue in cheek, he informs lonely Brazilian women over the age of 50 looking for “a little bit of companionship” that he is “for hire” — and dug up an old political-blog comment claiming that both of the twins had been accused of rape more than 15 years earlier, which, despite its extreme vagueness, served only to inflame the group. (Travis strongly denies all allegations of this sort; Aaron did not respond to interview requests.) A member posted a screenshot of a private message he said was from someone else who’d reported having “met a friend out here who was sexually harassed by Aaron at a party.”

Further Periscope videos, some almost manic, were unearthed: In the most damning of them, Aaron encouraged men to “always grab a girl’s booty first if you want to have sex … They also give you false resistance, so just keep pushing. Don’t worry about it … at the end of the day, they’ll thank you and say, ‘Oh, you make me happy.’ ” He further advised his followers to “isolate and get them alone. Most likely you just take them back to your bedroom and there’s going to be like this little token resistance.” (It was in the context of trying to persuade Travis and a few other friends to join him in Chiang Mai, Travis says, that Aaron filmed these bro-among-bros Periscopes.)

In the midst of all this, Travis’s boss at Guru, a school where he taught English, fired him by text, saying, “Everybody asked me to let U go / As U suck as a teacher!!!” The drama jumped offline when a handful of the Atlas twins’ most vocal pursuers showed up at Cube No. 7, the café where the Myers-Briggs seminar was to be held, intending to confront the brothers in person. Travis rode up on a scooter, saw the assembled posse, and left. At 10:30 that evening, Travis texted some of his pursuers, proposing a “big meet,” and later showed up outside one of their apartment buildings. Travis was now convinced that Johnny FD, Chiang Mai’s reigning digital-nomad guru, was conspiring against him and his brother, but when he aired this evidence-free theory on Facebook, challenging FD to a public debate, he only further alienated the community. Another nomad told him, “You need to run, these people are out for blood.”

Within a day, much of the brothers’ internet presence had disappeared. Just five days after the Facebook thread had begun, they fled the city, destination unknown.

The brothers had run into trouble in Chiang Mai, it seemed, when they were perceived to be upsetting the community’s delicate balance of commercial and communal.

The most serious claims against the brothers — of sexual harassment and even rape — had been anonymous or pseudonymous second- and thirdhand allegations, bereft of checkable details. The firsthand accounts I heard were of aggressive-pickup-artist pushiness. I had coffee with a female foreign national who has lived in Chiang Mai for many years. She had met one of the twins at a café in the old city, she told me, and “I started to realize this guy was a manipulator. He seated himself at a right angle to me, close, and the frequency with which he put his hand on my knee increased as the conversation progressed.” She made a point of mentioning her husband and children, but he seemed undeterred.

After Travis rode away from Cube No. 7, where his critics had been waiting to confront him, he and Aaron met with the five inaugural students of Digital Nomad Campus at another spot, Elephant Café. By then, the Facebook group had become more aggressive, threatening to report them to immigration authorities for working illegally on a tourist visa. After the word rape started getting thrown around, “they were panicked,” Karl Chmielowiec told me.

We were sitting at a juice bar. Chmielowiec had just returned from a border run to Laos, a prominent feature of digital-nomad life being the travel gymnastics required to stay visa-compliant. His hair was back in a bun, which he wore beneath a baseball hat from Kamimura, a Bangkok streetwear boutique he was helping with its website. On his phone, Chmielowiec pulled up his “vision board,” a collage of inspirational photos of a suited man in an airport, a DJ basking in an arena’s adulation, and some women in bikinis. “In Chiang Mai, they weren’t promoting themselves as digital-nomad experts,” Chmielowiec said of the Atlas brothers. “Their real skill was just getting a community started.” And, at last, after all those states and countries and jobs and mantras, they did. Only the larger community of which it was a part had rallied together to expunge them.

The twins flew into Chicago O’Hare on Inauguration Day, where their oldest friend, who spoke with me on the condition that he not be named, picked them up. They stayed with him for a few days in Ohio before flying out again. He says that Travis has been vague, even with him, about where he’s living, as well as about Aaron’s whereabouts. “Ideally,” he says, “they would settle down and get a typical nine-to-five … and fade away from any spotlight for a long time.” But it’s difficult to believe they aren’t already searching for their next new life to try on, the one that will, at last, stick.

*This article appears in the July 10, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

The Atlas Twins: Evangelicals, Rappers, and Digital Nomads