BACKGROUND African Americans (AA) and rural communities often suffer disproportionately from poorer health. Theory-guided research examining how individual- and community-level factors influence health behaviors and contribute to disparities is needed. OBJECTIVE To understand how a social network model that captures the interplay between individual and community factors might inform community-based interventions to reduce HIV risk in rural AA communities. DESIGN Qualitative study. SETTING AND PARTICIPANTS Eleven focus groups with 38 AA 16–24 year olds, 42 adults over age 25, and 13 formerly incarcerated individuals held in community settings in two rural, predominantly AA counties in North Carolina. Thirty-seven semi-structured interviews with multiethnic key informants. APPROACH Semi-structured interviews and focus groups with open-ended questions assessed a) perceptions of multi-level HIV risk determinants from a social network model (individual, interpersonal, social, economic, political and structural) identified through literature review and b) community needs and assets affecting local HIV rates. Qualitative data was analyzed using directive content analysis guided by a social network model. RESULTS We identified four themes regarding the interaction between individuals and their communities that mediate HIV risk: interpersonal processes, community structural environment, social disorder, and civic engagement. Communities were characterized as having a high degree of cohesiveness, tension, and HIV-related stigma. The community structural environment—characterized by neighborhood poverty, lack of skilled jobs, segregation, political disenfranchisement and institutional racism—was felt to reduce the availability and accessibility of resources to combat HIV. Adults noted an inability to combat social problems due to social disorder, which fuels HIV risk behaviors. Civic engagement as a means of identifying community concerns and developing solutions is limited by churches’ reluctance to address HIV-related issues. CONCLUSION To combat HIV-related stigma, physicians should follow recommendations for universal HIV testing. Besides asking about individual health behaviors, physicians should ask about the availability of support and local community resources. Physicians might consider tailoring their treatment recommendations based on available community resources. This strategy may potentially improve patient adherence and clinical outcomes.