This Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children review contains no spoilers.
Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children, directed by Show of Force, which includes Joshua Bennett, Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre, and Sam Pollard, is devastating, appalling, and utterly riveting. It will move you to yell at your TV screens frustrated at justice denied, and leave you with the horrific anxiety of a killer or killers on the loose and possibly protected by a system corrupted with endemic racism.
Between 1979 and 1981, at least 28 African-American children, aged 7 to 17, most of them boys, but also adolescents and young adults, were kidnapped and murdered in Atlanta. The city became the center of attention throughout the world. Twenty-three-year old Atlanta native Wayne Williams was arrested and charged with two of the adult murders. The judge allowed the prosecution to attribute ten additional victims to him, essentially putting Williams on trial for the entire Atlanta Child Murder spree. The documentary presents this as a David vs. Goliath case, except David has no slingshot. Williams was convicted for two of the adult murders and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. Angry and frightened parents said the trial ended the investigation because of political pressure to stop the headlines.
When a man is suspected of killing 29 people and is charged with two, there are a lot of unanswered questions. Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children opens at a March 21, 2019, press conference where Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was 9 when the murders began, announces the Atlanta Police Department is reopening the case after 40 years. She reads the names of the murdered children, echoed by the sound of their names being read in a long-ago memorial service. The scene is effective in showing an open wound on an entire community. Bottoms says she owes the families some closure. To “the extent that peace can be had in a situation like this, to the victims’ families,” the mayor demanded the evidence be retested using the latest DNA technology.
Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields, while admitting the department isn’t quite jumping for joy at the prospect, promises full support, along with a warehouse worth of files. They will re-test 22 murder cases which have been deemed cold since 1981 by the city of Atlanta. One of the original detectives on the case is on hand to give his blessing, which his face says is long overdue.
The documentary then puts the killings into historic perspective. At the time of the killings, Atlanta was the beacon of the south, a city which called to black residents because of its progressive inclusion. Mayor Maynard Jackson was the first African-American to govern a southern city and the first action he took was to make the police force “more brown.” Civil rights leaders sought refuge in the racial balance, even though it teetered very close to Ku Klux Klan territory. Fifteen minutes out of Atlanta, Confederate flags few and white power was the only power. The Black Mecca of the expanding urban uptown businesses stood in stark contrast to the projects off the avenue.
The documentary features crime scene photographs, and a lot of the visuals are shocking. Some are in stark black and white, others in muted colors. Interspersed with the photos and archival news footage, the documentary includes contemporary interviews with the victims’ families, law enforcement officials, Williams’ defense attorney and Williams himself. We are first introduced to Wayne’s parents, Homer and Faye Williams, a photographer and a school teacher. They describe their son as a happy and enthusiastic child, intelligent and energetic, who avoided trouble in school.
The disappearances began in mid-1979. The first body found is 14-year-old Edward Hope Smith, the second is too decomposed to identify. The police did not think the two killings were related at the time. The parents of Alfred Evans didn’t think the second body was their child because the advanced stage of decay rendered him unrecognizable. A task force to investigate the killings wasn’t formed until nine children were dead.
As fear grips the city and parents stop letting their kids play outside, the investigation becomes a circus. In October 1980, Dorothy Allison, a self-proclaimed psychic, arrives and promises there will be no more murders now that she’s there. New York City’s Guardian Angels show up to offer tips on how people can protect themselves. Bill Cosby made public service announcements advising kids not to get into anyone’s car. Pop star Michael Jackson and boxing legend Muhammad Ali gave money for rewards. The documentary captures the anxiety of vulnerability which runs deep in the area.
The documentary consistently shows the political and social importance of the black churches in a frightened and angry community. Paranoia reins. There are rumors of mutilated genitalia. Conspiracy theories abound. Was it the government? It hasn’t been so long since people learned the truth about things like the Tuskegee experiments. Was there a child porn ring? The documentary highlights a series of arrests in the area where boxes of underage nude photographs, including some which may be of some of the victims. Was it someone the kids trusted? Williams, a self-proclaimed talent scout, becomes a person of interest after a 16 year old musician disappears on his way to a recording studio.
The case derailed the hope of Atlanta, and the documentary exposes the myth behind the Mecca of the South. The community wanted justice from the city and law enforcement rushed to officially shut down the case. Atlanta never recovered. Some of the parents left, hating the city and its false hopes and shattered promises. Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children doesn’t go for easy emotional shortcuts like the “It’s 10 p.m., do you know where your children are” slug Georgia TV stations asked at the end of the broadcast day. It takes us from the streets the kids weren’t allowed to play in straight to the cemeteries the parents drive around, no longer able to cope with the losses.
The five episodes build suspense and outrage in equal measures. There is a real fear at the center of Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children, a very personal and devastating series of losses for the families and the community, and the filmmakers catch that with horrific beauty and sensitivity. There are no reconstructions of crime scenes or acted segments to move the narrative forward, merely facts and the opinions of experts and those involved at the time and retroactively in contemporary interviews. As the missing parts come together for the viewer, we can’t help but be angered by what the GBI, FBI and police held back or even destroyed as non-essential.
Forget any reptilian or alien or Illuminati conspiracies, law enforcement and political expediency make them all look like rank amateurs. This documentary series is a punch in the stomach. It will make you angry. It is also heartbreaking and will make you sad, occasionally physically hurt. Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children doesn’t offer closure. Unlike the promise of shows like Starz’ Wrong Man, or Netflix’s Making a Murderer, there will be no retrial coming out of this. It captures the frustration. To date a killer has never been tried for all 29 murders.