From 1979 to 1981, at least 28 black boys and young adults were murdered in the South. Atlanta Monster is a podcast that explores the disturbing and complicated case of Wayne Williams, the person a jury found guilty of what has come to be known as the “Atlanta Child Murders.”
Hosted by Payne Lindsey, a documentarian and amateur investigator whose earlier podcast Up and Vanished helped solve the cold case murder of Tara Grinstead in rural Georgia, this show explores the murders of these young boys while examining the culture of Atlanta in the early 1980s.
While this is not a perfect podcast (I find it plodding at times, and for a detailed review, see Panama Jackson’s discussion of it here), a few things have become clear: 1) There are more questions than answers about what happened to the boys who were murdered, and 2) since there are so many questions, many black folks in the city of Atlanta have developed theories in an attempt to make sense of it.
Some say the Ku Klux Klan were the ones killing the kids; others, emboldened by homophobia, claim that a child sex ring is the reason they were murdered. Yet one thing is beyond dispute: Twenty-eight kids are dead, and many black people in Atlanta do not believe the official police report.
The number of theories about the case got me thinking about how black folks in America, faced with racism that is both systematic and ubiquitous, often do the best we can to make sense of the world by investing in theories that are, upon first examination, fantastical and yet, when examined in context, inherently logical.
For example, remember the Illuminati? People were convinced that Bey and Jay were members, prompting the Queen to say: “Y’all haters corny with that illuminati mess.” This theory is both fantastical yet logical. Instead of believing that Beyoncé and Jay-Z are, in fact, that brilliant and talented, the only way for some to make sense of their success in a country as racist as America is to believe that they are involved in the Illuminati.
It is illogical because, well, the Illuminati. But it does make sense for black folks who know what it is to struggle and fight for every dime to see that kind of meteoric come up and be suspicious. This way of thinking is not new. I became intimately acquainted with it when my uncle taught me about the White Man.
Uncle Johnny blamed everything on the Man. He said black folks had bad credit because the Man would not give us the same access to capital as he would white folks. He said that black unemployment was bad because the Man wanted black folks to be broke. Johnny was convinced that the white man flooded the black community with drugs to undermine the Black Panthers and that neighborhoods are segregated because the Man did not want “niggas to live next do’ and date his daughters.”
At the time, I found his conspiracy theories fantastical, but Uncle Johnny was convinced he was right. I now see that he wasn’t wrong. History is clear on the fact that black folks were redlined and denied credit and that the FBI was involved in undermining and dismantling the Black Panther Party. To be black in America is to be a living, breathing, logical end of a conspiracy.
So while my uncle was incorrect in his assessment that there was a singular white man behind all of these social ills, he was right to think that there was something nefarious going on. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a conspiracy theory is “the theory that an event or phenomenon occurs as a result of a conspiracy between interested parties; specifically: a belief that some covert but influential agency (typically political in motivation and oppressive in intent) is responsible for an unexplained event.”
Black folks are given to this way of thinking because our entire existence in this country is the result of a conspiracy. We were stolen from our homeland, brought to this country and treated like cattle, all while being taught that we were intellectually and aesthetically inferior. Then, when we created art, it was stolen, as Elvis took from Big Mama Thornton and Led Zeppelin took from Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. Therefore, the black inclination to believe in conspiracy theories is a logical response to the unfathomable institutional oppression we’ve faced since the first enslaved African stepped foot on America’s shores.
Because there are more questions than answers about what happened to the 28 black lives that were taken in Atlanta, I understand why conspiracy theories have developed in the presence of questionable justice. If the powerful in this country have a track record of disregarding black life, why should we believe them when they say they’ve found someone who has taken it?