For many of us with ties to the city of Atlanta, the name Wayne Williams evokes memories. While I was too young and too far away at the time to be directly affected by the Atlanta Child Murders—a name given to the rash of murders of black children from many of Atlanta’s impoverished communities from 1979 to 1981—the era, subsequent search for, and eventual prosecution and conviction of Williams marked a very dark spot on the city.
The case involved disenfranchised black communities, the Ku Klux Klan, potential race wars, the Mayor’s Office, the Atlanta Police Department, the FBI, the Chattahoochee River, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., James Baldwin and even a 1985 CBS miniseries called The Atlanta Child Murders, which included stars like James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee, as well as Morgan Freeman, which just proves that where there is blackness, there is Morgan Freeman.
Even some of Atlanta’s hip-hop acts have woven the tales into their rhymes, with lines like, “ ... the only thing we feared was Williams, Wayne ... ,” courtesy of André 3000 on Goodie Mob’s standout “Thought Process” from their debut album, Soul Food, and again on their follow-up album, Still Standing’s “Gutta Butta,” this time courtesy of Khujo Goodie, where he states, “ ... and they know where to dump that ass, in the Cha-ttahootchee River with the rest of the kids ... ,” a nod to the fact that several of the bodies of missing children, as well as those of two adult men, which ultimately brought down Wayne Williams, were found in the river.
The case of Williams and the Atlanta Child Murders has been the subject of books, essays and documentaries. Aside from the aforementioned miniseries, Soledad O’Brien also did a deep dive into the case for CNN.
As a case, it’s fascinating because so many actually believe that Williams is innocent, including family members of some of the murdered children, who think that Williams was used to cover up the true murderer, who might have been a white person or persons who could have torn the city apart at the seams.
If he was (or is) innocent, Williams did himself no favors, having failed several polygraphs and fabricating information given to the police. Also, circumstantial DNA evidence makes him responsible for at least the two adult cases, and he was tied to many of the child cases, though not all.
Now, courtesy of HowStuffWorks and Tenderfoot TV, comes the podcast Atlanta Monster, hosted by Payne Lindsey. The podcast is a several-weeks-long podcast that takes the deep-dive, investigative journalistic approach to looking at the case. The podcast rehashes familiar information, but with new looks and interviews with people connected to the case and from locals in Atlanta who were children at that time.
It’s two episodes in, and to call it riveting would be underselling it tremendously.
It’s also triggering. The entire story is about the deaths of almost 30 children; black children from some of Atlanta’s poorest and most vulnerable communities. There were mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters separated from their kids and siblings. Grandmothers who sent their grandchildren to the store and never saw them again.
As a parent, I find the thought of losing a child nightmarish. Like this? Lord. I cannot imagine being a parent who had to watch the news, only to find out that another child was found dead, knowing that one’s own child was missing, and sitting with evaporating hope and prayer each day. That must be one of the most harrowing experiences ever.
While it is a case that was closed more than 30 years ago and is largely unspoken of—especially in Atlanta—the idea of vulnerable children being at the heart of it can make the story hard to listen to.
For many adults in Atlanta who were children at the time of the child murders, after Williams was caught, he was akin to a bogeyman. I’ve heard him referenced as, “Be careful or Wayne Williams will get you.” While the podcast is two episodes in, I can tell it will go there, considering that locals from Atlanta’s west side are enlisted to recount the history.
That’s one thing about this podcast so far that’s interesting to listen to: Most documentaries I’ve seen talk to family and law enforcement, but this includes actual Atlantans who grew up during the time, and not just politicians, but regular folks living in the city. We get to hear how it felt during that time.
I’m not the biggest podcast person, but this is one worth listening to because it revisits a case that captured national attention, and gripped a city, particularly the black citizens, while the white citizens were largely ambivalent. And then, once a person was convicted, the city pretended that it never happened.
Except it did happen; the city of Atlanta lost a significant number of its youths because nobody took the case seriously for almost a year because we were talking about black children. In episode 2, it’s mentioned that during the terror, a fake call came in to authorities, threatening to kill a white child, and how that heightened some tensions. It’s like A Time to Kill all over again.
If you’re looking for a podcast to check out, this might be your bag, baby. Even though we know how it ends—at least those of us familiar with the case—the new information and rehashing of a case that affected so many families so like many of ours is worth the listen to hear how a community dealt with the loss of its youths. And how it’s tried to move on.