‘Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered’ Review: HBO’s Investigation Is Exhaustive and Wrenching

The docuseries tries to make sense of an unsolved case that saw over 30 black children slain beginning in 1979.

Over a two-year period beginning in 1979, at least 30 black children and young adults were murdered in the city of Atlanta. Eager to solve the case, officials pegged the crimes to 23-year-old Wayne Williams, who would eventually be found guilty of murdering two adults. Days after he was sentenced to two life terms, most of the children’s cases were closed and attributed to him, without ever going to trial. The new HBO series “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered” explores how the victims’ family members remain skeptical of Williams’ guilt. It points to alternate suspects and biases, while investigating the racial tensions and cultural clashes that brought Atlanta to a boiling point, raising new questions that demand further investigation.

Directed by Sam Pollard, Maro Chermayeff, Jeff Dupre, and Joshua Bennett, the five-part “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered” distinctly reproduces its period. It documents in detail Atlanta’s history over the past half-century, billed as “the city too busy to hate,” seemingly on the brink of significant strides under its first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, before the brutal killings shattered the community.

Meshing stock footage from the past with developments in the present, the docuseries encompasses the whole span of the child murders, which started in the context of a high homicide year, the highest in the history of Atlanta. The majority of the victims were black, as were the killers. The people victimized were the poorest and most vulnerable. And so initial reaction to the child murders by officials was that there was nothing extraordinary about them, and no connections were made.

It didn’t become the story it should have been, until around nine children’s bodies were found. A task force was set up, and the murders finally started to get national attention. And with the attention came a kind of morbid circus. As faith in local law enforcement diminished, vigilante groups gathered to protect the community; psychics were brought in to assist the police in their search; suspicions spread rampantly, and in some cases, the parents were suspects.

It was the perfect environment for conspiracy theories to thrive, like the idea that religious and sex cults were responsible for the murders; that they were sexually motivated, that the government was somehow involved and was attempting to bury the truth.

Meanwhile, the body count continued to rise, naturally raising the anxiety levels of a community that already felt quite vulnerable. There was a sense that they were under a coordinated attack, and it all came to a head with the October 1980 bombing of the Bowen Homes daycare center that killed four children and a teacher, and critically injured others.

It was a landmark event in the case because it deepened the divide between an angry community who assumed there was a plot to kill black children, and the elected political leadership who clearly didn’t know what to do. When FBI profilers finally arrived in Atlanta, their immediate conclusion was that the killer had to be black, because racial divisions were so severe that it would be impossible for a white killer to go unnoticed in black neighborhoods.

Enter Atlanta native Wayne Williams, who was either a killer of at least 30 children and young adults, or an unlucky pawn used by officials who were more concerned about putting the case to bed than in finding the real killer. Or maybe the truth was somewhere in the middle.

Surviving family members, and most of the Atlanta community, are still convinced Williams wasn’t the killer. Even some reporters and writers also have their suspicions, and question why other leads weren’t pursued. (The case was dramatized in the most recent season of Netflix’s “Mindhunter.”) Of course, officials remain resolute in their belief that Williams was the right guy. But later episodes in the series, devoted to his trial and appeal, do little to eliminate any doubts about the extent to which the city scrambled to end the investigation.

There’s plenty of evidence that suggests the case against Williams was tenuous from the start, from questionable evidence to unreliable testimony. The film also introduces its own theories, including that the killings may have been carried out by a local infamous racist, which led to reasonable concern about where that road might lead in light of the South’s history of racial division.

Nevertheless, Williams was convicted in 1982 in the deaths of two adults, who were thought to be among 30 black children and young adults killed by the same person. After his conviction, police closed the rest of the cases, blaming them on Williams without formally charging him.

Now 61-years-old, he continues to maintain that he’s innocent, and has repeatedly appealed his convictions, which have all been denied. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Police Chief Erika Shields are leading a charge to reopen the investigation, demanding the evidence be retested using the latest DNA technology.

Though dominated by the trial of Williams, the series’ purpose is less to relitigate past events than to help them make sense. It digs into the historical and cultural underpinnings of the murders and subsequent search for justice, many of which are unpleasant. Graphic photos of the bodies of dead children are shown briefly but repeatedly, and the crimes are described in detail. To see the mangled body of a child brings home the reality of the nature of what transpired, in all its fright and dread.

The filmmakers assembled a broad roster of interviewees who provide fresh insights on the murders from every angle, including several of the victims’ mothers and family members, former officials, politicians, journalists and attorneys. Much of the interview material is effective; like the sight of crying mothers when asked to remember their murdered children, or a brother still haunted by the memory of a sibling’s disappearance. Journalists recall the shameless media and political biases that made wily justifications masked in a subtle racism.

“I really want them to find out who did it,” said Anthony Terrell, whose 12-year-old brother, Earl, was one of the 29 abducted and killed between 1979 and 1981. “It would be closure to a lot of parents and others who want answers. It’s more than just blaming Wayne Williams. His name was embedded in everybody’s heads. Let us be focused on something else. He was convicted of two adults, but the rest were children. What about them?”

It’s all very infuriating, and ultimately very sad, revealing a shattered community that desperately sought justice from law enforcement officials and local government during a horrific chapter in the city’s history, and found it distressingly short in supply. And 40 years later, there is still very little in the way of reassurance, or clarity for the families and loved ones who continue to ask questions, however painful the answers might be.

Unsettling and engrossing, “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered” is a must watch. It will leave audiences baffled and enraged over how justice for these wicked, unusually extreme crimes, has yet to be properly served. It doesn’t solve the case, but it doesn’t set out to. What it does more than enough of, is introduce new evidence that challenges the veracity of claims made by officials, and the way the entire case was handled, while helping to bring the decades old horror back into the spotlight.

Grade: A

“Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children” airs Sunday nights at 8 p.m. on HBO.

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