Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children, HBO’s five-episode docuseries airing through May 3, is not the first to tackle the horrific Atlanta Child Murders that rocked that city and shook Black people throughout the nation.
Just last year, Will Packer, the producer better known for Girls Trip and the Kevin Hart-Ice Cube Ride Along franchise, joined forces with Investigation Discovery for the three-part docuseries The Atlanta Child Murders retracing the period between July 1979 and May 1981 when at least 28 people, mostly young Black boys, were kidnapped and murdered. And in 2017, the Atlanta Monster podcast exposed a whole new generation to the tragedy.
Still Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered is arguably one of the most extensive to date. And that, docuseries executive producer/director Sam Pollard, was intentional for him and his team.
“We just didn’t want to make a doc that said ‘Here in 1979, young people started going missing. They found the young man named Wayne Williams who they attached to these murders. They put him on trial. He was convicted and everything was just done,” Pollard said of the docuseries filmed last year.
“We wanted to look at the city of Atlanta from the issues of race and class, that it was run by a Black administration led by Maynard Jackson,” Pollard noted. “We wanted to really look at the complexity of what it meant to go through this particularly horrific period of Atlanta’s history.”
Monica Kaufman Pearson, an Atlanta news legend who covered the story and appears in the docuseries, believes Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered succeeds.
“I binged-watched all five [episodes],” Pearson said. “And for someone who lived through it, for me, it was so eye-opening. The rawness of the parents today is as raw as it was back then.”
Pearson even learned new things about the case. Anger, she said, was the primary emotion she felt back then.
“Why couldn't we solve these cases? Why were people dragging their feet when it was obvious after body after body after body was showing up that this was the work of a serial killer or killers,” Pearson recalled.
Aside from the frustration she felt regarding the investigation itself, the treatment of the victims and their families also distressed her.
“I can remember the parents being described by some as ‘low-income, welfare, not keeping up with their children, irresponsible,’ which was disconcerting. And then I could see the children being described as ‘hustlers,’” Pearson said.
Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered captures that and more. There are no talking heads here. Participants are either directly connected to the city or the case or both. One of those is Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms who was nine years old when the murders began. Her administration reopened the case last year.
For Pollard, the reopening of the case helped frame the series.
Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered moves easily between past and present. The imagery is graphic because the murders were gruesome. There is no chill here. Like Pearson observed, the pain of the mothers is no less palpable now than it was then.
The trial of Wayne Williams, the presumed serial killer, is also covered with great care, and for good reason. In 1982, the then 23-year-old Atlanta native, who grew up middle class and socially awkward, received two life sentences for the murders of 27-year-old Nathaniel Cater and 21-year-old Jimmy Ray Payne. Truth is, not Williams nor anyone else has ever stood trial for the 24 known murdered children, ranging from age 7 to 17. Williams has consistently proclaimed his innocence, with some of the victims’ families backing him up.
Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered goes a step further by exploring other possible killers, including the Ku Klux Klan, which counted Atlanta police officers among its membership, and revealing other less prominent investigations.
“I want people to look at the fact that this is much more complicated, that maybe Wayne Williams wasn’t the actual killer. Maybe it was other people. Maybe he was an accomplice or maybe he didn’t do anything at all. And maybe, when he was put on trial, it was a rush to judgment and that the authorities should have done a deeper dive into looking at who might have been the other people involved in these murders,” Pollard explained.
What won’t change is the impact the Atlanta Child Murders still has 40 years later.
“It's really a scar on the city of Atlanta that hasn't healed yet,” Pollard said. “It’s a scar on the issue of race and class in this country that never ever can be forgotten.”
— Ronda Racha Penrice
Photo and Video: Courtesy HBO