A new HBO docuseries, Atlanta’s Missing And Murdered: The Lost Children, aims to refocus attention upon the justice that never arrived for dozens of grieving families. Between 1979 to 1981, at least 30 African-American kids and young adults went missing or were discovered to be murdered in Atlanta. A 23-year-old suspect, Wayne Williams, was convicted in 1982 for two of the murders, and curiously, law enforcement swiftly declared the rest of the cases to be closed. For the dozens of other victims, their families never received the answers they sought, and this series digs deep into the investigation, along with the racial tensions that rose to a boil in at Atlanta during a time when the city hoped to become a Southern mecca of commerce and culture.
This five-part series — while highlighting interviews, transcripts, archival footage, and more — unravels the trial’s spectacle and suspect behavior of law enforcement (read the FBI’s main Atlanta Child Murders case file for the multi-agency investigation here). Sure, there was also the strange behavior of Wayne Williams, but the City of Atlanta can no longer turn its back on the shady shutting down of murder cases as they mounted at an alarming rate. The docuseries launches with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms reopening the overall case in spring 2019. Coincidentally and a few months later, David Fincher’s second season of Netflix’s Mindhunter reignited public interest in the Atlanta Child Murders as well. We spoke with two of the HBO series’ filmmakers, Maro Chermayeff and Sam Pollard, about how they unfurled this case’s twisted legacy.
I’ve been looking at the chronology of the case, which was shelved and then got reopened in 2019 while you were working on the docuseries. And then Mindhunter‘s dramatized take arrived in the middle of all of that. Can you walk me through your filmmaking timeline?
Sam Pollard: It really goes back to 2017. I had just finished a documentary entitled Maynard, about Maynard Jackson, the first Black mayor of a major Southern city (Atlanta), and I did a little segment in that documentary that looked at the Atlanta Child Murders and all the issues that Maynard Jackson had to face in dealing with that. And Maro and the people at Show of Force, they saw the doc, and they thought it was time to do an even deeper exploration of the Atlanta Child Murders and the City of Atlanta. So they put together a proposal, and we pitched it to HBO, which both of us have a long relationship with, and they gave us the greenlight. We were off and running in December 2018. And then in January after a lot of research, we did our first trip down to Atlanta to meet different people and get a lay of the land, and we started shooting in February. And what’s amazing is that we shot this whole series in a year and a half, which is something that rarely happens with documentaries.
Speaking of HBO, Watchmen recently brought the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre to greater public awareness. After the season finale, officials announced the discovery of a possible mass grave in Tulsa. What’s your hope for this series?
Maro Chermayeff: I hope that people re-look at this case individually. Was this a serial killing with a single perpetrator? Was Wayne Williams guilty of these crimes for which he was found guilty? This isn’t a vindication. We’re not trying to get Wayne Williams out of prison. We’re trying to look at the story and contextualize it in this rising city. Atlanta’s like another character in this series, and we want people to look at what was happening to marginalize the community, how they were treated at this time, how they ultimately ended up finding somebody, got him in their crosshairs, and really stopped investigating the case. They decided that Wayne Williams did this, and this must shut down. There were a lot of other viable things involved, whether that was the Klan involvement, the pedophile rings in Atlanta, and it just didn’t get looked at in a significant way, and part of that is a race issue in a very divided city. Somehow, the children themselves and Wayne Williams all fell prey to this, and we thought it was really interesting how it was handled at the time and how the outcomes could have been different. That is what really intrigued us. We didn’t just want to tell the story of [children who had become numbers]. The mothers and the siblings have really suffered over the years. They hadn’t gotten the sense of conclusion and justice, and I hope for them that their time has come.
Sam: In some ways, some of the families of the victims, when they sat down to do interviews with us, this was the first time that they felt an opportunity to open themselves up after living with this over the years. It was just amazing and very gratifying to finally be able to listen to [the families] and hear about what they’ve gone through for all of these years.
You mentioned the City of Atlanta being a character. What does the series say behind the myth of it being the mecca of the South?
Sam: It definitely challenges it. It looks how complicated it is. For a lot of Black people, like myself who was 29, 28 at the time, I saw this as a city that there was a possibility of moving to because they had a growing Black middle class. But underneath that, you had core people, working-class people who were struggling to make ends meet. You had racism that was still a prevalent part of Atlanta. Right outside of Atlanta, the Klan was there. It was a city that had a lot of complicated layers to it, and I think we did a fantastic job, if I do say so myself…
Sam: …of exploring all the different layers of the City of Atlanta.
Maro: Most of the approaches that we’ve seen are about the murders: here’s what happened, here’s the splash, and that doesn’t dig deep into what was going on in this community and culture that allowed this to fester in this way. We wanted to look at that.
The family members were clearly receptive to that exploration, like you said.
Sam: They all were fantastic. I don’t think in all my years of interviewing so many people that we had family members that were so willing to sit there and open themselves up to us. It wasn’t easy for some of them. If you could watch some of the outtakes with some of these family members, it makes tears come to your eyes.
Maro: It’s harrowing.
Sam: They were open to it, and I really thank them, we all do, from the team. We thank them for being willing to participate in the project.
Do you think with today’s streaming culture, and after Netflix’s Making A Murderer, that people might start fruitlessly rooting for a retrial?
Maro: I don’t think the goal for us or the chief of police and the mayor are not advocating for a retrial for anyone, including Wayne Williams. His lawyers have been doing that. They’re doing this for the cities and the families because they never had their cases tried. They were added onto two adults who Wayne was charged with and ultimately found guilty, and then halfway through that trial, they tacked on ten children through very questionable fiber evidence and potentially junk science evidence, which we, of course, break down. You’re taking a fiber out of someone who’s been in the Chattahoochee River? You know, how many companies and textiles have dumped into that river? It was really sketchy science. And they made it sound more and more complicated so that a jury would just be inundated. The trial is fascinating, but clearly, they wanted this to shut down, and Wayne did not have much of a chance at all.
I couldn’t make sense of Wayne’s behavior when he was a person of interest.
Maro: That’s Wayne’s downfall! He’s his own worst enemy to the 10th power. He just didn’t get it.
Maro: And he didn’t have, at that time, really significant advisors to help him through the process. We did interview Tony Axam, who was a well-known, well-seasoned criminal defense attorney who was originally on that case. We talked to him extensively, a very smart guy, and Wayne fired him. And we always say, “Oh my god, what would the outcome have been if Tony had been there all the way through?” He would have never let all those things happen. As tough as his attorney was, she had never done a murder trial. You don’t take a case of that magnitude having never done a case. Every card just kept stacking up against him.
If you could both name the most baffling thing about this case, what would it be?
Sam: From my perspective, it was in Episode 5, after the appeals process, and you’re listening to all of these law enforcement people, who basically they don’t even remember the tapes. They don’t look after the tapes, and I’m like, “My god.” What incompetence.
Maro: And what dishonesty: “I don’t remember.” Person after person doesn’t remember an entire investigation of the Klan that reads like a multi-thousand-page transcript? They don’t remember?
Sam. It’s amazing.
Maro. It’s just ridiculous. And then for me, you tell me now a 120-pound guy throws a body out of a moving vehicle, over a bridge, without even stopping a car, a body that weighs 50-60 pounds more than he does. And then when a body is found, two days later, he’s nabbed on the bridge, when even the coroner’s report says that the body had been in the river for 7-8 days. Tell me how that’s a smoking gun.
And there was a “clunk” on the bridge that someone heard randomly, which got introduced into evidence?
Maro: Yeah, they were asleep and heard a splash, and they were there to see if bodies were getting thrown over the bridge, so they have lights, they have the equipment. A body lands over the bridge into the Chattahoochee, in the summer with low water movement, and they can’t move a flashlight around and find that floating body? That might be there, five seconds later? Of course you would see it, it’d be right there, it would have barely moved. The whole thing, just…
Sam: …doesn’t make any sense.
Maro: Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense. All of those things! The next time I wanna throw something that’s double my weight out of a moving vehicle by myself while I’m driving, that’s when I should get the Emmy.
HBO’s ‘Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children’ airs on Sundays at 8:00pm EST.