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ATLANTA'S MISSING AND MURDERED: THE LOST CHILDREN
Premieres on HBO Nordic 5.4.2020.
First a disclaimer: This is one of the most horrific documentaries I’ve ever seen. You will see crime scene photos and images of dead children. Things that burn themselves into your soul and never leave.
Is it still something that you should watch? Absolutely and without question. This is a compassionate and sombering documentary of the highest calibre. It gives a voice to the families of the murdered victims and highlights endemic racism in a system designed to protect only a chosen few. The imagery used is not for simple shock value; it is there to force others to feel a fraction of the pain that the families do. Even then it can’t do reality justice, but it is important that it tries.
The result feels horrifying not because you’re expecting the worst, but because the worst has already happened. These children are dead, murdered in horrific ways, and nothing will ever be alright again.
The series opens with Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms reopening the investigation into the Atlanta child murders. In any fictional story, this would be the beginning of the end; a triumphant call to action to finally bring closure. Here it’s an altogether too late acknowledgement of open wounds that were never treated. No suspect has ever been tried for the murders of at least 28 children. The only conviction has been for the deaths of Nathaniel Carter and Jimmy Ray Payne, both young men in their twenties. Their supposed killer is Wayne Williams, 23 at the time of the murders, who is still in prison serving two consecutive life sentences. Though never tried for the child murders, Williams’ conviction was used as an excuse to close the investigation in its entirety, leaving families without closure ever since.
Over the course of five episodes, ATLANTA’S MISSING AND MURDERED creates a compassionate and heartbreaking picture of the decades since 1979, when the murders began. Families of the victims are still alive, most living in Atlanta, and the ghosts of their loved ones linger on every street corner. Speaking frankly to the camera, the testimonies of those involved are never sensationalized nor exploitative. This is a chance to set a record straight, and not a single moment is wasted. The evidence presented is as compelling as it is upsetting. Most of the series is spent in anger at how the police force treated the case because the victims were minorities. Early murders went unsolved and discarded as officials deemed the killings of ten and twelve year olds as drug related.
As the series progresses, the scope expands even further. The murders serve as a foundation for a much larger and more damning conclusion: Minorities are not, nor have they ever been, under the protection of the law in America. By the final episode — and knowing the corruption within the American justice system — the argument for the KKK’s involvement in the child murders doesn’t just feel plausible, but downright probable.
As the investigations stall — both due to incompetence and racism in equal measure — Atlanta itself teeters on the edge of an all out race war. Suddenly, as if by a miracle, a solution is presented and all is quietly swept away. The theory that Williams’ arrest was a scapegoat to sweep the child murders under the carpet suddenly feels all the more compelling.
To the series credit, even dissenting voices are allowed time on screen. Their argument that the killings stopped once Williams was arrested is convincing, though it opens up another can of worms; there is no certainty that this too wasn’t planned.
In the end we are left with even more uncertainty than in the beginning. There is no easy solution, no neat ribbon to tie things up. Like surviving families, we are left with doubt.
Unlike them, we can move on.