Some people listen to true crime podcasts to become amateur sleuths, with evidence walls and meticulous tracking of details as the finer points of a crime from the past gets unspooled over any number of episodes. Many of these shows succeed because they parcel out breadcrumbs for the audience to follow, hooking them with a farewell cliffhanger week after week
Maybe “Atlanta Monster,” the series that’s been a fixture at the top of the podcast charts for a majority of 2018 so far, has found a following because it does precisely that at certain points. But as it’s drawn in listeners who were previously unaware of the kidnappings and murders from 1979-1981 that upended life in Atlanta, it’s also drawn strength from approaching this period of time in a way that doesn’t get bogged down by the usual trappings of many criminal biographies. Now four episodes into its run, the “Atlanta Monster” story has arrived at Wayne Williams, the man ultimately accused and convicted for two murders and assumed by many to be responsible for the unsolved others. But as Williams’ case becomes emblematic for so many ideas running through the reporting and retelling of this case, he is far from the series’ sole target of attention.
Payne Lindsey, host of the also-popular “Up and Vanished,” returns to another enigmatic Georgia case alongside co-creator Donald Albright. This time, there’s a greater focus on how this series of crimes (solved or unsolved, depending on who Lindsey asks) is reflected in the recollections and collective psyches of those people within and outside the community. Whether these murders and kidnappings happened in their formative years or after they’d long been entrenched in their chosen professions, “Atlanta Monster” takes stock of how these participants in the project see both themselves and those tasked with keeping the community safe.
“Atlanta Monster” follows in the footsteps of the true crime podcast gold standard “In the Dark” by not concerning itself primarily with who is at fault in the disappearance and death of the children at the heart of the central cases. (Though, as Williams becomes a more prominent figure in the story, the possibility of his innocence is beginning to loom larger over the story.) Instead, the show works best when it’s the prism through which the podcast tells the story of Atlanta in full.
The local news clips in “Atlanta Monster” are essential to understanding how the case came to overtake the entire city. But credit the show for also making media criticism another focal point of show and not merely sticking to a retread of a family and city’s trauma. It’s telling when tiny details shift over time (the age at which Wayne Williams opened his backyard radio station subtly changes from 12 to 14 over the course of different reports) or when it’s clear that the press seized on Williams as a story before he was officially charged.
Though the testimony of agents is helpful in crafting the skeleton of the timeline at various points, law enforcement officials fall under the same amount of examination. Their firsthand accounts take up a significant portion of interview time, not merely to rubber-stamp the primary records of police reports, but to show how certain assumptions may have guided the investigations.
With episodes ranging 45-60 minutes long, Lindsey is wise to use the extra time to drive home how ubiquitous these crimes were. It’s not enough to interview a handful of people alive at the time who can attest to how the public attention made them feel. “Atlanta Monster” brings in clips from songs recorded three decades later, scenes from a Morgan Freeman-led TV movie, and even a benefit concert appearance from Frank Sinatra himself.
One of the reasons that some interview subjects show their skepticism about the way the justice system handled this case is that it became all-encompassing. Their arguments are that by locking away Wayne Williams, the city and the state absolved itself from having to confront the truth about the sociological components of the case. One subject explains that it’s “impossible to disentangle the race and class issues,” while another explains that “it always comes back to racial tension.” Rather than present one view as the definitive, objective timeline of the events, “Atlanta Monster” embraces the idea that everyone in the story of these disappearances has a different, changing perspective. Neighborhoods where black and white residents were fundamentally separated led to different assumptions about how the case was handled, and the show adjusts its lens with each new bit of testimony.
In this way, the show isn’t firmly planted in the past. That reconciliation between what happened and the way that the city was able to “move forward” in its wake is something that most subjects in “Atlanta Monster” are wrestling with. The curfews lifted, and a sentence was handed down. Rather than exist purely to cast doubt, this show provides instead an antidote to the idea that history, be it on a national scale or on a neighborhood level, is a fixed object.
The truth in this show is like the backing synths that score most of the story. Late in the second episode, the melody gets pitched up and down, like it’s echoing from a VHS tape as some unseen hand is adjusting the tracking. Rather than see that disconnect as something to be conquered, “Atlanta Monster” takes the swirling views of television reporters, detectives, and the citizens who never asked to be part of this. With its most recent episode, it even embraces the idea that this show is far from the only documentary venture trying to get to the bottom of a citywide mystery.
The prospect of including Williams himself as a direct interview figure (as the promos for next week’s episode tease) in the fifth installment is an apt touch. With the official version of the story ensconced for three decades, “Atlanta Monster” is as much an examination of how narratives around major crimes are created. The show may end up vindicating Williams or it might close with a particularly damning piece of evidence. But at this point, that’s not its main focus — and that’s why it’s worth listening to.