RECAP: Episode 1

HBO’s latest documentary series – “Atlanta’s Missing & Murdered: The Lost Children” – debuts roughly 40 years after the grisly 1979-1981 crime spree that shook the southern metropolis to its core. Over the course of two years, at least 28 people were murdered, most of whom were children and all of whom were African American. Black families railed at the local government to do more to investigate and protect their children, with the kidnappings and murders drawing little interest and coverage until the toll rose to nearly double digits.

Although a story that’s not as well known nationally as it should be, the Atlanta child murders have been in the news of late. Netflix’s “Mindhunters” devoted its entire second season to the crime spree, following the FBI’s burgeoning Behavioral Science Unit as it sought to profile who could be behind such ghastly crimes. And last year, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (who features in the documentary series) re-opened the investigation into the case, hoping to either shed new light on any perpetrators who may still be out there, or at least provide some measure of closure for the several families that never received any.

In its first episode, “Atlanta’s Missing & Murdered” covers a lot of ground. Most fascinating is its explanation of Atlanta in the 1960s and 1970s as a city on the rise in a big way. Described as “a city too busy to hate,” it was where African Americans could prosper alongside white people. (One interviewee describes Atlanta as akin to Wakanda.) But while parts of the city thrived, its more impoverished corners never received the same improvements and were left to languish.

The sprawling first chapter also covers how the crimes started, including interviews with cops and investigators who worked the streets at the time. Interviews with surviving parents and siblings are gut-wrenching, with some still carrying enormous guilt over what they could have done to prevent these tragedies. Race relations are consistently at the forefront, with local politics and racial inequities coming to a head as the black community stands firm in its belief that the Ku Klux Klan was behind the slayings. (As we’re told, with a significant portion of the police force being former Klan members, hope for an objective investigation runs thin.)

But most fascinating is the episode’s depiction of individuals who do and don’t believe in the guilt of Wayne Williams, the man who was ultimately arrested and convicted for two murders that he is currently serving life sentences for. The divide in opinion is not along racial lines – the series shows us black people who believe he’s guilty, and others that don’t. We learn about his middle class upbringing by working class parents. One of Williams’ defense attorneys says she never saw him as a killer; another interviewee describes him as “evil.” And yet, circumstantial and fiber-based evidence was enough to link him to all the child murders and effectively close those cases for 40 years. Furthermore, the killing spree ended upon Williams’ arrest.

Was there a miscarriage of justice? Or was the legal system circumvented to arrive at an obvious conclusion? More interestingly, what effect did the killings have on the identity of Atlanta as a city? This promises to be a fascinating dissection not just of a true crime, but of the larger sociopolitical ramifications that such destruction can have on a city and its people.

“Atlanta’s Missing & Murdered: The Lost Children” airs on HBO Sundays at 8pm.