“If you just dropped me here, blindfolded, I’d have no idea where I was,” says Payne Lindsey at one point in Atlanta Monster, the popular podcast in which he investigates an infamous series of murders that took place in the city in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Payne is talking about a neighborhood in Atlanta where a body was found, but nine episodes into the podcast, the remark feels more sweeping and categorical: Lindsey has no idea where he is in this story and neither do his listeners. Atlanta Monster, a much-anticipated re-examination of a crime wave that riveted the nation, is a meandering mess, a wasted opportunity to illuminate what has been shadowed for decades.
In 1981, 23-year-old Wayne Williams, an Atlanta native, was convicted of the murders of Jimmy Ray Payne and Nathaniel Cater. With that, law enforcement closed 21 other murders they deemed to have been committed by a single killer over the preceding two years. Almost all the victims were strangled or otherwise asphyxiated, as were Payne and Cater. All, like Payne and Cater, were poor and black. But most of the other victims in what had become known as the Atlanta child murders were just that: children between the ages of 9 and 17. Payne was 21 when he died; Cater was 27.
By the time federal agents picked up Wayne Williams on a bridge crossing over the Chattahoochee River, the killings had become so notorious that Muhammad Ali had donated $400,000 to the reward fund and Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. had performed in a benefit concert for the same cause. James Baldwin flew in from Paris to cover it for Playboy. President Ronald Reagan appeared on television to decry the crimes as “one of the most tragic situations” the nation had ever faced and sent Vice President George H.W. Bush to the city to meet with officials and police devoted to the case.
And yet most of the murders have never truly been solved. Many family members of victims refuse to believe that Wayne Williams killed their children, and several have cause to suspect specific individuals of committing the crimes instead. One of the original investigators, DeKalb County Police Chief Louis Graham, ordered five of the murder cases reopened in 2005, although investigation of those cases has languished. Another of the original task-force members who doubts Williams’ guilt, former Sheriff Sidney Dorsey, is currently serving a life sentence in state prison for ordering the murder of a political rival. Some criminologists insist that it is unlikely that one person was responsible for all of the killings. One of the victims has never been found and might not be a victim at all. It is a fiendishly complex case, in part because no one’s sure which deaths it includes.
Lindsey is a young, white documentary filmmaker who had an unexpected hit with the podcast Up and Vanished, in which he investigated the disappearance of a schoolteacher in a small Georgia town. The attention it drew to the case led to the discovery of new evidence and two arrests, but the 17-city live tour Lindsey mounted for Up and Vanished struck many listeners as, in the words of one critic, “an unsavory victory lap.” Lindsey approaches Atlanta Monster in much the same way he did Up and Vanished, as a flabbergasted ingénue whose very naïveté might just function as a secret weapon. Although he lives in Atlanta, he had never even heard of the child murders before his (black) business partner suggested it as a topic, and many of the podcast’s fans seem to regard it as revelatory for similar reasons. Yet this is one of the most famous serial murders of the 20th century, the subject of multiple books, television programs, and films. The image of a major American city that proclaimed itself “too busy to hate” and our fraught national history of racial and class divisions played decisive roles in how the murders were discussed and investigated. An “OMG, who knew?!” approach might have worked with an obscure missing-person incident in a contained rural community, but the Atlanta child murders call for a more sophisticated and journalistic approach from a host.
For material, Atlanta Monster leans heavily on two sources: local-news broadcast footage from a University of Georgia archive that goes unidentified on the podcast’s information-poor website*, and DeWayne Hendrix, a Texan who befriended Wayne Williams, believing him to be innocent. Hendrix talks about The Matrix a lot, comparing Williams to Morpheus, and he maintains a Facebook page for an organization called In Just Us, in which various theories about alternate suspects are endorsed. These include blaming an alleged “homosexual ring” in the neighborhood where most of the child victims lived and/or a serial killer named Edward Edwards, who has been accused by one self-styled cold-case expert of the Atlanta killings, the Zodiac murders in California, JonBenét Ramsey’s death, the child murders for which the West Memphis Three were wrongly convicted, and the killing of the woman whose death featured in the Netflix series Making a Murderer.
Both of these sources make for good audio, but they are also fundamentally unreliable. The local TV-news reports are, unsurprisingly, shallow, often sensationalized, and replete with the prejudices of their time, particularly when it comes to gay men. In the podcast, Monica Kaufman, a journalist who was the first black American to anchor a local newscast in Atlanta, provides some welcome historical perspective to these clips. She winces at the inability of her broadcast colleagues during that period to draw a clear distinction between LGBT people and sexual predators. Some of the missing children—who were mostly though not entirely boys—had allegedly been sighted hanging around the house of Tom Terrell, ominously described in one of the clips as “an admitted homosexual.” According to Kaufman, the sexual trafficking of children (as distinguished from consensual sexual contact between adult men) “was not looked into” by police. “Did they look at known pedophiles?” she asks. No answer is forthcoming from Atlanta Monster. Kaufman’s contribution can only do so much to balance out the overwhelming amount of local TV news in the podcast; nowhere can the lack of a presiding intelligence directing Atlanta Monster be more acutely felt.
As for Hendrix, even apart from the nonsense on his Facebook page, he is a chronic exaggerator. Lindsey, in a rare moment of conscientiousness, fact-checks a Hendrix statement and catches him significantly overstating the height and weight of a victim while explaining how Williams could not possibly have thrown the man’s body off the bridge. But Hendrix also describes Williams’ father, Homer, as a “college professor” when he was in fact a high school physics teacher. Homer appears to have been a tall-tale spinner himself; two of his former neighbors interviewed by Lindsey offhandedly remark that he claimed to have worked on the Manhattan Project. No effort is made to substantiate this story.
Hendrix also put Lindsey in contact with Williams himself, although given Williams’ long history of spotlight-seeking, the obstacles to that were probably trivial. By Episode 3, Williams and Hendrix have virtually taken over Atlanta Monster, spooling out long, tedious cascades of bullshit about the shocking evidence and mind-blowing secrets they are always on the verge of, yet never quite getting around to, imparting. Their tirades are punctuated with the domineering refrain “Do you understand what I’m saying?” Many long minutes are inexplicably devoted to Williams’ cellmate—his musical ambitions, and even his mother, who in an interview seems tickled by her son’s connection to such a famous figure. “I’m not into celebrities,” she tells Lindsey, but Williams “is an icon.”
The podcast wanders erratically, dropping plots and picking up new ones seemingly at whim. A sizable chunk of Episode 6 is devoted to Lindsey purchasing a dummy used to train firefighters and tossing it off the bridge where Williams was alleged to have disposed of Jimmy Ray Payne’s body to evaluate the sound of it hitting the water. The episode ends with a recording of the splash but doesn’t bother to draw any conclusions from it. Meanwhile, one of the people Lindsey interviews, a Williams family friend who came into possession of the car Williams was driving the night he was arrested, casually remarks that he has many boxes of evidence, including police reports, given to the defense team during the discovery process in Williams’ trial. Even though Lindsey bemoans that “there’s not much to go off of this case,” this doesn’t seem to intrigue him at all.
You can guess why. Boxes of paper make for bad audio, especially compared to interviews with the family members of victims, which can be juiced with intrusive, tabloidy synth music. (The soundtrack to Atlanta Monster does not do it any credit.) Perhaps some of the family members Lindsey spoke with found a bit of relief in again voicing their doubts about how their relatives’ cases were handled. But what these survivors need is not further sympathy or attention. They deserve not just acknowledgment of the wrongs done them but a thorough investigation that might correct those wrongs. Among the many things that have been denied them are the facts and the truth.
What Atlanta Monster might have provided to all of us is a new look at the crimes from the perspective of an experienced and skeptical observer, someone able to think systematically and help listeners make sense of the whirlwind of competing theories, claims, and scenarios. Perhaps new evidence might emerge under a fresh investigation, but it seems more likely that a better analysis of the information already available would yield fruit. The case is a data problem. Williams might have committed all 28 crimes, although that seems unlikely, or he might be entirely innocent, as many Atlantans believe. Or he might be responsible for only some of the murders, which seems probable. Are there previously unidentified patterns among the murders that could suggest another perpetrator or perpetrators? Are there other crimes fitting the pattern that occurred after his arrest? In virtually the only segment of Atlanta Monster to take a systematic investigative approach, geographic profiler Maurice Godwin explains his reasons for inferring that Williams is responsible for the adult murders, but not those of the prepubescent children. How could DNA testing, which emerged in the years since Williams’ conviction, shed light on the case? (In fact, in 2010, DNA analysis was used on hairs found on an 11-year-old victim’s body, and presumably Atlanta Monster will address the results in its final episode, yet to be released.)
A true-crime podcast like that would obtain those old discovery files, scrutinize them for overlooked details, and follow those trails wherever they led. It would seek out criminologists with new ideas about how to organize and interpret what we already know. If they decided to get really serious, its producers would create an online database containing every detail known about the murders. Its host would guide us, letting us in on the process of evaluating these interpretations, as Sarah Koenig famously did in Serial. While Atlanta Monster offers some eloquent experts (most notably Atlanta historian Calinda Lee) to set the scene and highlight the underlying social conditions, it has yet to deliver any clarity to the story itself.
It’s frustrating to listen to a podcast reap reflexive accolades from critics and on social media for repeating observations that have been part of the conversation about the crimes from the very beginning. Simply stating that racism, direct and structural, affected how the Atlanta child murders were investigated and covered is not enough. The Atlantans terrorized and bereaved by the child murders of 1979–1981 deserve a real investigation. Instead, they got a credulous, self-important bro wandering around their city and opening old wounds, in preparation for another victory lap.
*Correction, March 19, 2018: This article originally misstated that a University of Georgia archive is not credited as the source of broadcast-news footage used in Atlanta Monster. The archive is credited at the end of the first episode.