A crisis catalyzes, illuminates, and reveals. That’s as true for individual lives as it is for entire societies, and the fact of it deepens the sense that our communities, institutions, and cities are fragile. It can seem like a miracle all of it doesn’t just come crashing down. Until it does.
Atlanta Monster is a new ten-part, true-crime and history podcast that examines a crisis, and perhaps most importantly, a city’s woefully slow and inadequate response to it. The crisis in question is the Atlanta child murders, a grisly series of killings spanning a two-year period between 1979 and 1981 that claimed the lives of at least 28 black children and young adults in the greater Atlanta metro area. The murderer was seemingly apprehended with the 1982 arrest of Wayne Williams, but of course, it’s not that simple. Williams, a black man, was sentenced to life imprisonment based on the murders of two adult men, and considerable ambiguity remains around his role in the broader catastrophe.
As you would expect, the question of Williams’s culpability over the child murders is a core driving force behind the interest and sensibilities of Atlanta Monster. This is, after all, a true-crime podcast, and furthermore it is the follow-up effort of Tenderfoot, the Atlanta-based team — made up of host Payne Lindsey and his creative partner Donald Albright — behind Up and Vanished. That show was a two-year-long project that dug into the cold case of Tara Grinstead, a 30-year-old white high-school teacher from rural Ocilla, Georgia, who disappeared in 2005. Up and Vanished was a peculiar and shaggy artifact, one that brought listeners into Lindsey’s investigation as he scoured documents, theorized out loud, and cultivated relationships with the local community in semi–real time. It had the DIY feel of a true-crime blog published by sleuths diving deep into a chosen morbid mystery, except these sleuths may well have ended up being the cause of an effect. Deep into Up and Vanished’s run last year, the cold case experienced a true break that resulted in two arrests for the Grinstead murder. The podcast is thought to have, at the very least, played a role in kick-starting interest in the case, if not more.
Which is all to say that the legacy of Up and Vanished looms over Tenderfoot’s sophomore effort, along with the pressure of replicating the same highs and spectacle. But such expectation would do a disservice to what Atlanta Monster has done in its early going. At least for now, the podcast is at its most interesting when it’s explicitly a show about race in the city of Atlanta. Racial politics governed (and governs) everything in the Atlanta child murders, and the podcast has done a commendable job illustrating this by training its focus on how the issue complicated police response, defined the boundaries of potential suspects, and limited the ways in which the black community could respond to the threat that was aimed at them.
The show also excels when it’s operating as a document of people remembering the past. At this writing, we’re only two episodes into the podcast (a third just dropped today), and much of it has been exposition: the events, the stakes, the context. Lindsey and Albright smartly built a lot of it around interviews with ordinary people (most, if not all, of whom are black) who were carrying out their lives in the city during the time of the murders. The interviews make for a vivid, wonderful Greek chorus, corroborating but also occasionally debating the horrors in question. These people were all affected by the crisis, and even though some have physically moved away since, everyone remembers.
Atlanta Monster is a considerable step up for Lindsey and Albright in scope and ambition. This partly comes from the rich subject matter, but it’s also a function of their choice to co-produce the show with fellow Atlanta media outfit HowStuffWorks. It is, in many ways, a strange pairing, given the latter’s traditional focus on infotainment programming like Stuff You Should Know and Stuff You Missed in History Class. Atlanta Monster is not only HowStuffWorks’ first foray into pure true crime, but also their first stab at a highly produced narrative project altogether. But HowStuffWorks is an old hand in the podcast industry, with depth of experience and considerably more resources to spend on the project.
It remains to be seen whether Atlanta Monster will be able to follow through on its potential by the end of the ten-episode run. It’s off to a promising start, but the thing is far from perfect. The narration has the tendency to be more than a little heavy-handed — I’d prefer much less hand-holding — and the show is far too committed to the blaring use of synth-heavy, Stranger Things–inspired music cues that are frankly distracting. As with most things, less is more, and this is even more true given the sensitive, delicate, and emotional subject matter. There is also the larger question of how Atlanta Monster will balance its true-crime premise (i.e. “Is Wayne Williams actually guilty?”) against the strong historical work it’s been doing. Reconciling the two sides of itself will be the show’s biggest challenge, and that process of interweaving will likely take us to new depths as we contemplate the overarching point of the enterprise.
Something else I thought about in my listening: Unexpectedly, Atlanta Monster makes for a fascinating companion piece to American Public Media’s In the Dark, which I thought was the best podcast of 2016. That podcast’s first season — a second is currently in production, slated for a spring 2018 release — investigated the 1989 cold case of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year old boy who was abducted from his hometown of St. Joseph, Minnesota. Wetterling’s fate was left unsolved for almost three decades, but his disappearance has yielded deep, lasting changes. The case notably led to the 1994 passage of the Jacob Wetterling Act, which instituted the first federal law requiring states to track sex offenders and implement a national sex-offender registry. One could argue that it even sparked a cultural shift within the white middle class and white upper-middle class, pushing its approach to parenting toward a place that views the world outside the home as something fundamentally dangerous. In the Dark was judicious, thoughtful, and intellectually rigorous examination of a child murder. But the child in question was white. Listening to the first episodes of Atlanta Monster, I was struck by the symmetries between the two stories, and more painfully, the asymmetries — notably, in the responses of the police, the larger community, and the legal system.
Atlanta Monster publishes new episodes on Fridays. You can find it here.