Atlanta is a bustling, cosmopolitan city with an ugly past it must account for. Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: Lost Children recounts the city’s horrid history with a string of child murders from 1979-1981. It’s been 41 years since the first victim, Edward Smith, was murdered. He is the first of 30 victims in a spree that spans across 23 months and ravaged Atlanta’s poorest neighborhoods. Wayne Williams is still in prison, but only for two murders. There are 28 others and no one to answer for them. This is why Atlanta mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, is reopening the case. She, along with the families of the murdered and missing, are looking to bring closure to something that still haunts the city decades later.
This five-part HBO documentary directed by Sam Pollard, Maro Chermayeff, Jeff Dupre and Joshua Bennett and produced by John Legend and Roc Nation skips the reenactments, opting for interviews and archival footage that will take the audience down a bottomless rabbit hole. It aims to piece together what really happened and why law enforcement was so slow to act but quick to close the case.
The killings shook poor neighborhoods to their very core, and as they continued, it became apparent there was a pattern to the victims and their deaths. Ninety percent of the children are male and between the ages 7 and 12. All were either strangled, suffocated, or stabbed, and their bodies dumped in random locations all over the city. They were easy targets, as many were left alone while their families worked, or their parents were on drugs.
The children began disappearing sporadically first, and then, every day, new bodies were discovered, sometimes two a day. Camille Bell, mother of Yusuf Bell, starts the Committee to Stop the Children’s Murders, which publicly challenges the quality of the police work done by Atlanta PD. It isn’t just the mothers who are frustrated but other members of the community who form a “bat task force” that patrols the areas with metal bats to intimidate outsiders. As the distrust between the police and the community mounts, the Mayor appoints Lee Brown (the acting police commissioner) as head of Atlanta’s investigative task force. Unfortunately, the task force isn’t fully formed until after Eddie Middlebrooks, the seventh victim, dies.
Crime scene photographer and radio jockey Wayne Williams comes up as the prime suspect. Police caught Williams driving in the same area where the body of Jimmy Rae Payne is found days later. According to documentary interviews, Williams is an easy suspect because of his status within the community. He’s someone who can travel freely within Black neighborhoods without arousing suspicion, giving him access to children. Eventually, he is charged with the murders of Payne and Nathaniel Carter, and is now serving life in prison. Although he is charged with two deaths, the law hastily claims he is responsible for all the killings, thus shutting the case two days after his sentencing. It sounds cut and dry, but the complications are just beginning.
Later episodes introduce information that contradicts everything we learn about Williams’ case. Especially since proof of possible KKK involvement appears suddenly. Allegedly, their purpose for killing these children is part of a plan to weaken Atlanta’s Black population. All of this was withheld from Williams’s defense attorneys. With evidence suggesting a Klan connection, he has an appellate trial where this evidence is introduced. However, the new case isn’t strong enough, and Williams still sits in jail until this day while proclaiming his innocence.
As all the details come together, the actions of law enforcement seem contrived. With a Black judge, a Black cop as head of the task force, and a Black murder suspect, it lines up too perfectly. To give context, many of the families believe the theory that, because Black people are managing the case, this will make it easier for the Black community to accept whatever they are told without question, and that the suppression of documents about the Klan is done to prevent a possible race war. None of this may mean anything while reading it, but the footage will help it makes sense.
What the series does brilliantly is showing various vantage points—giving the viewer enough information to decide what side they’re on. There are graphic photos of murdered Black children, so that is something to watch out for if death or crime scenes make you uneasy. There is no salaciousness, or lopsided storytelling as what we see speaks for itself. The inefficiency of the judicial system is on display to such an embarrassing degree that it’s no wonder people were and still are angry with the slow and lazy response from the law.
There was a tremendous amount of misinformation, denial from all sides. Mayor Bottoms is right to investigate this once again. None of the families have closure because they believe Williams is innocent, that the real killer is still out there, and the government failed them. Black children often go missing without media attention or law enforcement empathetic to investigate with more precision. Once you get through the entire documentary, you realize Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: Lost Children is an apt title for children lost to their parents, lost in the judicial system, and lost in time.
Rating: ★★★★★ Excellent
Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: Lost Children premieres tonight at 8pm on HBO.