For many Americans, including myself, the 1985 TV miniseries The Atlanta Child Murders was the first and last word on the deaths of 29 African-American children, adolescents, and adults between 1979 and 1981. And if you asked the question, “Who’s responsible?,” the answer would be Wayne Williams, because that’s what a gripping 245-minute show starring Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, Rip Torn, Jason Robards, Ruby Dee, Martin Sheen, and others suggested. That’s not to say the show didn’t address the thorny racial context behind the killings — some believe the KKK was involved, and that Williams, an African-American, was scapegoated for crimes he didn’t commit — but it nonetheless settled on this conclusion. So it might be a surprise to learn that Williams was never tried for the death of a single child and that he’s continued to maintain his innocence.
With that in mind, brace yourself as Mindhunter begins to tread on this extraordinarily sensitive ground. To its credit, “Episode 3” already seems acutely aware of the context surrounding these murders and, for now, it’s content to draw out that context in full before coming to any conclusions of its own. With David Fincher again directing, this episode excels at capturing the mood of this young city on the make, which trumpets its first black mayor and its massive airport expansion while trying to contain the violence and racial animus that’s happening out of view.
The murders are not what calls Holden to Atlanta, however. He’s there to interview William Pierce Jr., who committed nine murders in ten months after being paroled in 1970. (The show doesn’t get into it, but his parole came over the objections of staff psychiatrists, who recognized him as a danger to himself and others. His victims included the daughter of a South Carolina state senator.) He’s also in town to interview their only black serial killer, a man named Hance, who’s convicted of bludgeoning two black prostitutes and repeatedly running a white woman over with a car. Pierce and Hance’s stories are both elaborate, confusing, and full of logistical hiccups. Pierce claims to know seven languages, but his English is crammed with malapropisms — the real Pierce reportedly had a 70 IQ — and the murders he does and does not admit to having committed don’t follow the confession he gave to police. For his part, Hance tries to explain a series of letters he sent to authorities to lead them off the scent, inventing a white-supremacist vigilante group called the Forces of Evil. If you had trouble tracking the logic in either one of their stories, that’s entirely by design.
And Holden couldn’t give a shit. The sly joke of “Episode 3” is that it turns his panic disorder into a red herring. Holden’s entire itinerary raises one red flag after another: Bill begs out of accompanying him to Atlanta because of a murder closer to home, so Holden is left without the support he needs in case something triggers another panic attack. The flight from Virginia hits turbulence … but lands safely. Pierce seems like a hostile, unsavory character … but it doesn’t raise Holden’s pulse a bit. Neither does his unexpected, surreptitious encounter with three mothers of slain children. Holden is so fine, in fact, that Wendy blasts him when he comes back with interviews that reveal his lack of engagement. A pattern is developing: Holden lives to talk to men of complexity, who can articulate their fetishes and psychological scars in all their many dimensions. When faced with dumb murderers who aren’t even capable of telling their own stories, he shuts down.
Holden does get invaluable assistance from a promising new character on the show, Jim Barney, who had interviewed for Gregg’s job and helps escort him through Atlanta. Barney asks the only relevant questions of Pierce and Hance, showing particularly good instincts on the former — having seen photos of Pierce around junk food, Barney plies the simpleton with Mallomars, and that’s enough to get him talking. (He does this despite Pierce shooting him nasty stares, likely motivated by racial hatred.) Barney knows the city well, and as an African-American, he has a feel for the particular divisions that would have completely eluded Holden if he were visiting alone. A hotel clerk introduces Holden to the three mothers of victims, but it’s not until he meets again with Barney that he can get a better sense of what he’s got.
As Mindhunter delves deeper into the Atlanta murders — I’d refrain from calling them the Atlanta Child Murders, because it misses the scope of the crimes — it will get into the controversies and divisions surrounding the case, but a scene with a Georgia Bureau of Investigation officer lays it out in broad strokes. Holden cites what he believes is a clear pattern connecting the murders, which focus largely on black children of similar socioeconomic backgrounds, most of them male of slight build, all abducted in broad daylight. The GBI officer throws some dirt on the theory by citing some differences in the cause of death while also pointing out that Atlanta has eight to ten child murders a year, so there may not be a pattern worth tracing at all. “If you’re looking for a monster, it’s poverty,” he says. “These kids are growing up vulnerable, scrounging for pennies in high-risk situations, surrounded by violence, sometimes in their own homes.”
There are other factors, too, tied into Atlanta’s fragile national image as a city on the grow. The election of a black mayor is a source of pride and division, leading to “white flight” into the suburbs. With Atlanta looking to establish itself as a major destination with the biggest airport in the world, the case threatens to scare money away, so there’s motivation to keep it quiet. Add to that the historic black-white division in the South, and distrust between families and the police force, and it’s a huge mess before the complications of the actual case are even factored in. It will be a huge challenge for Mindhunter to handle issues that are still fraught to this day, but it’s off to a promising start.
• The KKK will have a role to play in the Atlanta murders. The GBI officer surveilling a meeting from across the street is a minor sign of things to come.
• The BTK killer cold open dials back from the first two episodes, just as the show itself moves on to other matters. It’s perhaps worth noting that BTK burned a series of horrifying sketches in a cold open at the end of last season. Now he’s back to tracing them again.
• Some excellent material involving the murder in Bill’s neighborhood, which has left his wife devastated. Bill has to will himself into connecting with the panic of his wife and neighbors, who don’t have proximity to the horrors he examines every day, but he proves himself useful as a steadying force. He offers support and protection for the local detective, who’s cautious in doling out information, while assuring everyone else that they’re in good hands. He knows that if the manner in which the 22-month-old victim was killed were revealed, people would lose their minds.
• “I ain’t half-, I’m whole-witted,” says Pierce, unconvincingly.
• The Omni hotel clerk’s deference to Holden ends when he mentions following up with child and family services. In her estimation, DCFS has been used as a tool to shift blame to the victims’ families for their neglect, rather than on the perpetrator. It’s a lesson Holden seems to take to heart.
• “To find connections, unfortunately we have to wait for more bodies.” Unfortunately, indeed. There are a lot more bodies to come.