Too often, true crime podcasts fetishize or take light of heinous human actions. I’ll admit, I’ve listened to many – and have even written about them. However, my interest has waned because of the disappointing quality of production and crude jokes made making light of some really serious stuff. Luckily, documentary filmmaker-turned-podcaster Payne Lindsey and partner Donald Albrights’ Atlanta Monster is different. In the ranks of podcasts such as S-Town and Serial, its production value and content are exemplary and comment on the political and social context of the time that in some instances mirrors our current society today.
Lindsay and Albright, along with the producers of Tenderfoot TV, Up and Vanished and How Stuff Works, retell one of the most horrific events in Atlanta’s history, The Atlanta Child Murders- with a keen, critical eye. Between 1979 and 1981, nearly 30 African American boys and young adults were abducted and later found murdered. In 1982, Wayne Williams was apprehended and sentenced to life in jail for the murders of two adults, but law enforcement also believes that he is responsible for a majority of the The Atlanta Child Murders.
Atlanta Monster is more than just your average true crime podcast. Through hours upon hours of interviews with the families of the victims, investigators on the case, and life-long Atlantans, Lindsey re-opens the situation from a racial/class context. In 1979, The U.S. was ten years removed from the Civil Rights Movement and four years out of Vietnam. Atlanta was desegregated, but racial tensions were still high. Since the boys were black and from some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city, there was a firm belief amongst those in the African-American community that the police were not doing enough to help. Remember that 10 years after the end of the Civil Rights movement, the city was still de-facto segregated – whole areas of the city (white areas) had no idea that the disappearances were occuring – and the predominantly black areas were not prioritized by the police or the media, making it easy for something like this to occur.
It took 14 disappearances for there to be a media outcry and FBI involvement in Atlanta’s lost boys, and three years before the police apprehended Williams. Even then, some people, victim families included, don’t believe that Wayne Williams, then a young black photographer, is responsible for all of the killings – but rather an alternative to admitting the Ku Klux Klan’s involvement.
Atlanta Monster, even though it recounts a crime 40 years old – is still contextually relevant today when we think of how law enforcement and the media handle crimes against people of color. In listening to Atlanta Monster, I was eerily reminded of the viral social media story of 14 black and Latino girls that went missing from Washington D.C. in 24-hours. While the viral story proved to be inaccurate, it sparked a broader discussion on the differences in how the media covers the disappearances of black and brown youth. African Americans make up just around 13% of the U.S population, yet of the 400,000 youth recorded as missing in 2016, the FBI reported that 38% of them were black. Taking into account that blacks make up a smaller segment of the population, and have a disproportionately higher number of missing youth, there is empirical evidence that there are racial and gender disparities in media coverage of missing persons.
As mentioned before, Atlanta Monster is an incredibly well produced podcast that, unlike some of its peers, does not sensationalize crime but honors its victims. Not only does it provide a new contextual lens for the Atlanta Child Murders case, but it lends a voice for the families of the victims and hopefully furthers the more significant discussion of how crimes committed against minorities within the U.S are handled.