Much praise has been lavished (and rightly so) upon Atlanta Monster, a documentary podcast about the Georgia city’s chilling 1979 – ’81 child murders and the case’s controversial outcome. For true crime devotees, it’s shaping up to be a must-listen.
Over the course of two nightmarish years, more than 28 African-Americans — 22 of whom were male children — fell prey to one or more killers.The FBI teamed with Atlanta police to hunt for suspects. They ultimately arrested Wayne Williams, 23, a local Black man who also happened to be gay, and convicted him for two of the slayings. Eventually, authorities pinned almost all the murders on Williams.
To date, Williams maintains his innocence, and many observers — including numerous members of law enforcement — believe he did not do all the killings. Five of the murders, in fact, remain unsolved.
Now, with Atlanta Monster shining a fresh light on the still heavily debated tragedy, here’s a round-up of past books and movies that addressed this ongoing wound in American justice.
THE ATLANTA CHILD MURDERS (1985)
Director: John Erman
Cast: Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, Calvin Levels
The high-profile CBS miniseries The Atlanta Child Murders, written by veteran TV scribe Abby Mann, raises serious questions about the investigation and makes bold accusations against the authorities, and strongly suggests the Ku Klux Klan was responsible for the killings.
In its day, the production generated enough controversy to, some say, permanently change how the public has perceived the actual case. In fact, Mann said it was nothing less than “a crusade” against what he perceived to be a miscarriage of justice involving Wayne Williams (played here by Calvin Levels). Not everyone appreciated the broadcast taking so clear a stand.
The Atlanta Child Murders also changed entertainment forever by being the very first film to employ Morgan Freeman as its narrator (he also plays a cop). The rest of the powerhouse cast includes James Earl Jones, Martin Sheen, Ruby Dee, Jason Robards, Rip Torn, Lynne Moody, and Bill Paxton. [New York Times]
The Evidence of Things Not Seen is a non-fiction analysis and meditation on the Atlanta Child Murders by James Baldwin, one of America’s most esteemed novelists, essayists, and social critics (he was profiled in the award-winning 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro).
Baldwin’s takes are, as always, powerful, poignant, thought-provoking. In this case, as Baldwin was both gay and African-American like accused killer Wayne Williams, they’re deeply personal, as well. [Amazon]
Jack Mallard was the actual District Attorney who prosecuted Wayne Williams and got him convicted. His book about the case, The Atlanta Child Murders: The Night Stalker, lays out the evidence against Williams and works to dispel conspiracy theories that have since emerged regarding the killings, including the often-invoked KKK angle.
Although sometimes criticized as being too clinical, Mallard definitely supplies a decidedly different take on the tragedy than much of the other material that’s available. [Amazon]
For her knockout debut novel Leaving Atlanta, author Tayari Jones tapped her own experiences as a kid who grew up in the city during the terrifying early-’80s killing spree.
The book relates the time and place from the point of view of three African-American fifth-graders, for whom life seems normal until their classmates start to disappear. The details are vivid, and Jones tells the story with heartbreakingly masterful command. [Amazon]
5. WHO KILLED ATLANTA’S CHILDREN? (2000)
Director: Charles Robert Carner
Cast: Gregory Hines, James Belushi, Cle Bennett
The Showtime TV movie Who Killed Atlanta’s Children? stars Gregory Hines as Ron Larson and James Belushi as Pat Laughlin, a pair of Spin magazine reporters who, in 1986, authored “A Question of Justice,” a landmark investigative piece on the case (they’re based on real-life journalists Barry Michael Cooper and Robert Keating).
The article actually convinced authorities to reopen the case against Wayne Williams, although it did not clear his name. Who Killed Atlanta’s Children? chronicles the correspondents pursuing the truth, and seems to, again, imply that the local Ku Klux Klan committed at least some of the atrocities. [Variety]
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Main images: “The Atlanta Child Murders [DVD front cover image]/”Leaving Atlanta” by Tayari Jones [front cover image]/”Who Killed Atlanta’s Children?” [DVD front cover image]