Lucas was born in La Grange, North Carolina and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina. He claims that the incident that sparked his motivation to embark on a life of crime was witnessing his 12-year-old cousin's murder at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, for apparently "reckless eyeballing" (looking at a Caucasian woman), in Greensboro, North Carolina. He drifted through a life of petty crime until one particular occasion when after a fight with a former employer he fled to New York on the advice of his mother. In Harlem he indulged in petty crime and pool hustling before he was taken under the wing of gangster Bumpy Johnson. Lucas' connection to Johnson has since come under some doubt; he claimed to have been Johnson's driver for 15 years, although Johnson spent just five years out of prison before his death in 1968. According to Johnson's widow, much of the narrative that Lucas claims as his actually belonged to another young hustler named Zach Walker, who lived with Johnson and his family and later betrayed him.
After Johnson's death, Lucas traveled around and came to the realization that to be successful he would have to break the monopoly that the Italian mafia held in New York. Traveling to Bangkok, Thailand, he eventually made his way to Jack's American Star Bar, an R&R hangout for black soldiers. It was here that he met former U.S. Army sergeant Leslie "Ike" Atkinson, a country boy from Goldsboro, North Carolina, who happened to be married to one of Lucas' cousins. Lucas is quoted as saying, "Ike knew everyone over there, every black guy in the Army, from the cooks on up."
When interviewed for a magazine article published in 2000, Lucas denied putting the drugs among the corpses of American soldiers. Instead he flew with a North Carolina carpenter to Bangkok and:
We did it, all right...ha, ha, ha... Who the hell is gonna look in a dead soldier's coffin? Ha ha ha. . . .We had him make up 28 copies of the government coffins . . . except we fixed them up with false bottoms, big enough to load up with six, maybe eight kilos . . . It had to be snug. You couldn't have shit sliding around. Ike was very smart, because he made sure we used heavy guys' coffins. He didn't put them in no skinny guy's”
However, Atkinson, nicknamed "Sergeant Smack" by the DEA, has said he shipped drugs in furniture, not caskets. Whatever method he used, Lucas smuggled the drugs into the country with this direct link from Asia. Lucas said that he made US$1 million per day selling drugs on 116th Street though this was later discovered to be an exaggeration. Federal judge Sterling Johnson, who was special narcotics prosecutor in New York at the time of Lucas' crimes, called Lucas' operation "one of the most outrageous international dope-smuggling gangs ever, an innovator who got his own connections outside the U.S. and then sold the narcotics himself in the street." He had connections with the Five Families, holding an enormous monopoly on the heroin market in Manhattan. In an interview, Lucas said, "I wanted to be rich. I wanted to be Donald Trump rich, and so help me God, I made it."
Lucas only trusted relatives and close friends from North Carolina to handle his various heroin operations. Lucas thought they were less likely to steal from him and be tempted by various vices in the big city. He stated his heroin, "Blue Magic", was 98-100% pure when shipped from Thailand. Lucas has been quoted as saying that his worth was "something like $52 million", most of it in Cayman Islands banks. Added to this is "maybe 1,000 keys (kilograms), (2,200 pounds), of dope on hand" with a potential profit of no less than $300,000 per kilo (per 2.2 lb).
This huge profit margin allowed him to buy property all over the country, including office buildings in Detroit, and apartments in Los Angeles and Miami. He also bought a several-thousand-acre ranch in North Carolina on which he ranged 300 head of Black Angus cattle, including a breeding bull worth $125,000.
Lucas rubbed shoulders with the elite of the entertainment, politics, and crime worlds, stating later that he had met Howard Hughes at one of Harlem's best clubs in his day. Though he owned several mink and chinchilla coats and other accessories, Lucas much preferred to dress casually and corporately so as not to attract attention to himself. When he was arrested in the mid-1970s, all of Lucas' assets were seized.
Lucas' life was dramatized in the 2007 Universal Pictures crime film American Gangster, in which he was portrayed by Denzel Washington. The film grossed more than $US127 million, and was met with generally positive reviews. In an interview with MSNBC, Lucas expressed his excitement about the film and amazement at Denzel Washington's portrayal, though he admitted to several news outlets that only a small portion of the film was true, and that much of it was fabricated for narrative effect. In addition, Richie Roberts criticized the film for portraying him in a custody battle while in real life he never had a child, and also criticized the portrayal of Lucas, describing it as "almost noble."
Many of Lucas' other claims, as presented in the film, have also been called into question, such as being the right hand man of Bumpy Johnson, rising above the power of the mafia and Nicky Barnes, and that he was the mastermind behind the Golden Triangle heroin connection of the 1970s. Ron Chepesiuk, a biographer of Frank Lucas, deemed the story as a myth. Associated Press entertainment writer Frank Coyle noted that "this mess happened partially because journalists have been relying on secondary sources removed from the actual events."