Wide Angle

Everyone Can Be Wrong

Why Mindhunter’s treatment of race and the Atlanta child murders is so unsatisfying.

Three mothers of Atlanta Child Murder victims and an FBI agent in Mindhunter Season 2
A scene from Mindhunter Season 2.
Netflix

The first season of David Fincher’s Netflix series Mindhunter was essentially a workplace drama disguised as a crime show. Based on a memoir of the same title by John Douglas, it barely glanced at the parade of infamous real-life serial killers its fictional FBI investigators interviewed and studied as they founded the forensic practice of profiling. This perverse defiance of true crime formula—of the routine, queasy fetishization of serial murderers and their abominations—gave that first season its frisson. Instead of dwelling on the monstrous killers, Mindhunter chronicled the precarious task of changing an institution from within. And against all odds, it was a great show about people arguing over a questionnaire.

Season 2 is less nimble and satisfying, in part intentionally so. Fincher seems set on back-footing audience expectations with each new story arc. Holden Ford—a tediously conventional figure as the brilliantly innovative investigator who’s so obsessed with getting the truth that he’s always stepping on toes—is thrust into a situation where his interpersonal obtuseness threatens to make him genuinely repellent. That situation is the Atlanta child murders. How awkwardly Mindhunter handles this particular series of crimes testifies to how uniquely complex and politicized the child murders were, and still are.

The murders were a series of crimes—at least 28, although the precise number is contested; the body of a possible victim has never been found, while others may have been killed in unrelated incidents—that took place from 1979–81. The victims were mostly, but not entirely, young boys. All were black. As the body count rose—at one point, in 1981, a new victim was being discovered every 10 days—the case became a national cause célèbre. Vice President George H.W. Bush visited the city to check on the progress of the investigation, and Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. performed in a benefit concert to fund the manhunt. In the summer of 1981, police arrested Wayne Williams, a 23-year-old photographer and would-be music promoter, for the murders of two of the victims (both young adult men), and he was convicted the following year. The authorities then declared the rest of the investigation closed, with Williams presumed to be the perpetrator of the rest of the murders. None of these were truly solved.

For Douglas, the conviction became a reputation-maker. According to Mindhunter (a notably self-aggrandizing book), Williams, apprehended in a trap that anticipated a change in the killer’s M.O., conformed exactly to the profile Douglas and his team created. This coup is replicated in the TV series, but instead of portraying the accuracy of the profile as a victory for Ford, the series lingers, stubbornly, on everything his team of Behavioral Science Unit profilers fail to achieve.

The antagonist to a triumphal account of Ford’s work on the case, if not quite to Ford himself, is Camille Bell, the (nonfictional) mother of the fourth victim, 9-year-old Yusuf Bell, played with immense dignity by June Carryl. Bell co-founded STOP, a community initiative that pressured the Atlanta Police Department to more fully investigate the disappearances and murders of Atlanta’s black children and to recognize that the crimes could well be linked. Her role in Mindhunter, however, is to represent a vaporous indictment of law enforcement for shortcomings the series itself doesn’t depict. Outfitted in an oversize pair of Coke-bottle glasses that often turn her eyes into large mirrors, Carryl’s Bell is less a character than an allegorical embodiment of reproach. She isn’t given much to do besides scold Ford, who responds with highly atypical circumspection. She is noble, but she (at least in her fictional incarnation) is also, in several key matters, wrong.

Confusing this dynamic is the fact that everyone with a stake in the investigation has a particular solution in mind, and none of those solutions fits all of the crimes. The local cops—we’re told that some of them are racists and Klan members, but the ones depicted in Mindhunter are presented as sincere and concerned, even when misjudging the case—regard the kids as the inevitable casualties of their circumstances. “If you’re looking for a monster, it’s poverty,” one detective tells Ford. He’s got a point. The murdered children came from neighborhoods where kids could be lured into cars and other dangerous situations with the offer of a dollar or two.

Unlike that detective, the members of STOP and their neighbors believe the disappearances and murders to be connected, a thesis Ford finds convincing. But Ford reasons that only a black man could abduct so many kids off the streets of black neighborhoods in broad daylight without attracting attention, and like Douglas, he tests this hypothesis in real life and finds it sound. (In the series, Ford’s people perform the tests outside Atlanta, and the results are called into question; Douglas actually did his in the city.) The neighborhoods themselves believed that the Ku Klux Klan was responsible for all of the murders, a theory that persists to this day in some quarters and was the subject of a lengthy, if unconvincing, 1986 article in Spin magazine, which alleges that a redneck family with Klan ties was systematically murdering black children in an effort to trigger a “race war.” But as Douglas points out in Mindhunter, the Klan is a terrorist organization, one committed to “highly public” acts of violence sending unequivocal messages designed to terrify an entire population into submission. The Atlanta child murders were secretive crimes, the bodies hidden and often undiscovered for weeks. “If a hate group had targeted black children throughout the Atlanta area,” Douglas writes, “it wouldn’t have been content to let months go by before the police and the public figured out something was going on.”

For black Atlanta—a community that had just elected a black mayor, boasted a black public safety commissioner, and promoted itself as “too busy to hate” with an economic boom surrounding a new international airport—it made emotional sense that the KKK would be lashing out, trying to beat them back down. That’s what the Klan has always done. But if the Klan, or even just one Klan-affiliated family, were trying to foment a race war by killing black children, then why would it stop once Williams was arrested and convicted? Why not persist, multiplying terror and driving a wedge between the community and the cops by making it seem that the city had sacrificed a black scapegoat to its own self-image?

The scapegoat argument gets flung in the face of Mindhunter’s Ford as he repeatedly insists that a serial predator is at work in Atlanta, and that predator must be black. The unsettling similarity between serial-killer profiling and racial profiling is an unspoken current throughout this season. (Yet the nascent serial-killer profiling of the 1980s also led many to believe that such killers were always white, as the vast majority of them appear to be.) Furthermore, profiling itself remains a dubious forensic practice based on unreliable interviews, distrusted both inside and outside of law enforcement. As Ford’s black critics point out, an investigative profile can too easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading investigators to ignore suspects who don’t fit the bill.

Nevertheless, while even the most speculative parts of Douglas’ profile proved eerily accurate about Williams (he followed the case closely, liked to hang around the police and media covering it, thought he was smarter than everyone else, etc.), much of it was merely common sense. The killer would have had to have been black to prowl the streets of black neighborhoods and abduct nearly 30 kids without being noticed. He would need a car to do it. The dog hairs found on many of the victims’ bodies strongly suggested that he lived with a German shepherd. Williams is a gifted bullshitter, and his supposed music promotion business, soliciting underage performers, is exactly the sort of enticement that might lure an outgoing young dreamer into his vehicle. Community members who objected to Williams’ arrest often protested that he didn’t look or act like a killer. (This argument was a significant element of his legal defense.) But only someone who presented a façade of harmlessness could have succeeded at it for as long as he did, even after the entire city was on guard due to the crimes.

That said, the fiber evidence used to convict Williams was flimsy, and, furthermore, such evidence has recently been called into serious question. Probably the most convincing evidence against Williams is something that could never have been used in court: the abrupt cessation of the most typical killings after his arrest. Even Douglas doesn’t believe that Williams committed all of the crimes grouped as the Atlanta child murders. He is, however, convinced that Williams did kill at least 11 boys and young men: the younger male victims who were strangled and partially undressed before their bodies were hidden or discarded. That includes Camille Bell’s son, Yusef. The TV series depicts Bell bidding farewell to Ford after Williams’ arrest, when the FBI team has been pulled off the case, the image of stoic suffering (although finally in this scene her eyes are visible), insisting that Williams “did not kill my boy” and that “he might just be Atlanta’s 30th victim.”

Bell and Ford can’t both be right on this one, but they can both be wrong. Wayne Williams probably did kill Yusef Bell, but the police never succeeded in proving that. He probably didn’t kill several other victims subsumed under the Atlanta child murders label. Some of them might have been slaughtered in isolated hate crimes, others killed by different predators or even by family members, who remain, after gang members, the most common perpetrators in murders of people under age 18. STOP was right to press the police to view the murders as connected, because some of them were, but the unforeseen consequences of grouping all the killings together was that it made it easier for authorities to dismiss further investigation once the primary culprit was caught. Nevertheless, the Atlanta police recently announced that they were re-testing evidence from the investigation, despite the fact that a 2005 re-investigation led to no new developments.

Douglas/Ford was right to insist that investigators focus on a single, black predator motivated by psychosexual compulsion, and he probably saved lives by contributing to Williams’ arrest and conviction. But he too handed Atlanta’s leaders a pretext for brushing the anomalous cases under the carpet, leaving many families without a resolution to their losses. He helped catch one killer, but in doing so, he helped others get away with their crimes. In Season 2 of Mindhunter, everyone loses.