If there were ever a real-life cold case that cried out for a brilliant, obsessed investigator like Val McDermid’s Tony Hill or Idris Elba’s Luther, it’s the Atlanta child murders of 1979 to 1981. An estimated 29 killings of black children, adolescents, and young men riveted the nation and almost tore apart the booming “City Too Busy to Hate,” even as Atlanta’s black community celebrated the election of the city’s first black mayor. Then, in 1981, Atlanta police arrested 23-year-old Wayne Williams, a freelance news photographer and self-styled music promoter, for the murder of Nathaniel Cater, 27. He was convicted the following year, and with that, authorities closed the remaining 28 cases.
Hardly anyone was satisfied with this resolution, as a new five-part HBO documentary series, Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children, testifies. (The first two episodes are now available, and the remaining three will air on consecutive Sundays.) But there are a half-dozen different and incompatible ways of quarreling with it. Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered does justice to a couple of the criticisms, and it certainly provides a more cogent picture of the city, the time, and the crimes than the haphazard and gullible Atlanta Monster podcast did two years ago. But the HBO series also succumbs to the imperatives of a plot-twist narrative. It seems driven more by the need to entertain than a desire to get at the truth.
Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered does succeed at portraying an important part of the story: how the city’s black community experienced that terrifying two-year period, and the role that grassroots organizers played in forcing Atlanta’s recently integrated police force to take the murders more seriously. Victims’ relatives, journalists, people who were children at the time, and other Atlantans speak to the dread that settled over black neighborhoods, and to their indignation that officials couldn’t seem to stop the killing or identify its perpetrator. Camille Bell’s 9-year-old son, Yusuf, disappeared while running an errand for a neighbor and his body was found three weeks later in an abandoned school; she became a spokesperson for the victims’ mothers and the leader of the Committee to Stop Children’s Murders. The gravitational force of Bell’s eloquence and dignity in archival footage tends to bend any depiction of the Atlanta murders in the direction of her beliefs, and Bell believed that Williams is innocent.
She’s not alone. One of the most unsettling scenes in Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered comes in the second episode, when Williams, via speakerphone, is invited to address a forum organized by a local radio station at a church to discuss the case, an event attended by victims’ friends and relatives, former search party volunteers, and neighbors. If you believe (as I do) that Williams committed at least some of the murders, this is grotesque. The producers of the Atlanta Monster podcast allowed the garrulous Williams to run away with several episodes of their show, but that mistake served the purpose of making his narcissism and dishonesty impossible to ignore.
Nevertheless, the evidence against Williams is circumstantial. Most of it consists of fibers found on the bodies of many (but not all) of the victims attributed to the Atlanta child murderer, particularly an unusual green carpet fiber combined with dog hairs and traces of a bedspread found in the house where Williams lived with his parents. The fourth episode of Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered reconstructs the prosecution’s case, and it comes across as damning. Then the fifth episode proceeds to demolish it—at least rhetorically. The testimony of eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen Williams with some of the victims is cast into doubt. A 2015 exposé of widespread flaws in the FBI’s use of microscopic hair analysis is presented as if it also calls into question the fiber analysis that was a much larger part of the prosecution’s evidence. In the mid-2000s, Williams’ defense team learned that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was secretly surveilling a family allegedly associated with the Ku Klux Klan and had recorded one of its members, Charles T. Sanders, praising the killings. A 1991 appeal based on the argument that this investigation should have been revealed to Williams’ defense team, exhaustively documented in Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered, failed. The series does not mention the results of independent DNA tests in 2007 and 2010, both supporting Williams’ conviction, although not conclusively so.
FBI profiler John Douglas—the basis for the Holden Ford character in the Netflix series Mindhunter, which takes its title from Douglas’ memoir—participated in the hunt for the Atlanta child murder, producing a profile that matched Wayne Williams to an uncanny degree. Yet even Douglas has stated that he does not believe Williams committed all 29 crimes. The HBO series presents one of the strongest alternative scenarios—that a local man with a record of sexual assaults raped and killed one victim, Clifford Jones—a story dismissed by the police because the eyewitness who claimed to have observed the crime was intellectually disabled. It also covers the persistent rumors of a house where pedophiles paid local boys, including some of the victims, for sexual favors and photographs. This line of investigation does not appear to have ever been sufficiently pursued.
Despite its dramatic structure, anyone familiar with the Atlanta child murders won’t find anything new in Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered, although it does make for a much better introduction to the case than Atlanta Monster. The city’s current mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, interviewed for the series, reopened the investigation more than a year ago. Police chief Erika Shields said that the department still has boxes of evidence that has never been tested for DNA, but if that evidence has revealed anything of interest, it has yet to be announced. A frustrating sense of stasis prevails. Will there never be a breakthrough? Monica Kaufman-Pearson, a beloved longtime Atlanta news anchor interviewed for both the podcast and Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered, may be right when she tells the camera: “This is one of those mysteries that will remain a mystery because we blew it from the beginning. There were all these questions. And we never got good answers.”