The writer’s true-crime reporting marshalled the injustice in one set of cases to make an argument about justice itself.
By Casey Cep
May 1, 2020
One by one, they went missing. At least two dozen young boys and girls, ages seven to seventeen, disappeared—while walking home or riding their bicycles, on their way to the bank or the store or the local swimming pool, in the spring and fall and winter and summer. Most of their bodies were found within a few months, in abandoned buildings or vacant lots, under bridges or deep in the woods. Some of them were never found at all. For three years, from 1979 to 1981, these disappearances terrified the people of Atlanta, and the city has been haunted by them ever since. None of the murders were ever solved, although, inexplicably, twenty-two of the cases were closed after a man named Wayne Williams was convicted of two other murders in 1982, both of adult men, which the police argued were linked to at least ten of the missing children.
That argument did not convince many of the families of the children, or much of the rest of the city, and, finally, last year, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms ordered the police department to reopen its investigation into the Atlanta child murders, as the cases came to be called. That decision has brought increased attention to a series of crimes that have never really been out of the public eye. They have inspired countless exposés, features, and adaptations: a dramatic miniseries, in 1985, starring Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, and Martin Sheen; the moving novel “Leaving Atlanta,” by Tayari Jones, which was published in 2002; a documentary, a decade ago, by the CNN correspondent Soledad O’Brien, and a different one, last year, for Investigation Discovery, by the producer Will Packer; an insensitive, freewheeling podcast, two years ago, called “Atlanta Monster”; a more compelling season of the Netflix series “Mindhunter,” last year.
The most recent addition to this canon is the five-part documentary “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children,” which began airing earlier this month, on HBO. (The final episode of the series broadcasts on Sunday.) Directed by Sam Pollard, Maro Chermayeff, Jeff Dupre, and Joshua Bennett, with the musician John Legend among its executive producers, this moving, patient series begins with Mayor Bottoms announcing that the cases will be reopened, then goes back methodically through the events themselves, letting relatives, community members, law-enforcement officers, and reporters share their memories.
Outside of a flicker of a reference in the middle of the second episode, however, the most famous of the journalists who covered the cases goes unmentioned. In 1985, two years before he died, James Baldwin published “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” a short book on the Atlanta child murders. It was built from reporting he had done in Georgia’s capital city for Playboy, before and after the arrest of Wayne Williams, and also from his lifetime of experience as a black American. The circumstances of that reporting were, in some ways, inauspicious; when the book was published, a reviewer in the Times complained that it consisted of too much sermonizing and not enough sleuthing. But the book is a fascinating work of true crime which marshals the injustice of one set of cases not only or even chiefly to resolve them but in order to make an argument about justice itself. Today, its argument seems prescient. “The Evidence of Things Not Seen” is less a book about the deaths of black children than one about their lives—about the violence and neglect that too often afflict them and about the ways that, in today’s parlance, they do and do not matter.
Walter Lowe, Jr., wanted to cover the Atlanta child murders himself. As the first black editor at Playboy, he recognized the importance of the story, but the magazine’s editorial director insisted that the story needed a bigger name attached to it, so Lowe tracked down the telephone number for one of the biggest names they could think of. By this time, James Baldwin had been James Baldwin for many years. He was the author of celebrated novels and plays, his essays in magazines such as Harper’s and The New Yorker had been collected and bound into their own books, and his photograph had appeared on the cover of Time beneath a banner that read “The Negro’s Push for Equality.” Lowe phoned Baldwin in France, where he had moved, from New York City, more than three decades before, on the advice of his mentor, the novelist Richard Wright, who insisted that for black artists it was better to be from America than in it.
For Lowe, it was a nerve-racking call, not because his literary hero might say no to the assignment but because he might say yes. In a remembrance he wrote for the magazine Emerge a few years after Baldwin died, Lowe recalled stuttering through the call, nervously trying to convince the author to leave his refuge in France and reminding him of earlier essays he’d written for Playboy, including “Words of a Native Son” and “The Uses of the Blues.” Baldwin had read about the child murders in the international edition of the Times, but he had reservations about returning to the South, and he curtly informed the young editor that he was far too busy for the assignment. That was when Lowe realized that his idol might have a mistaken notion of who was on the other end of the line. “It suddenly occurred to me that he may have thought I was white,” Lowe said, so, “I rephrased my request in terms of writing about our murdered children.” The author interrupted to ask if Lowe was black, and then said, “I didn’t know Playboy had any black editors.”
That fact got Lowe halfway to a yes. He got the rest of the way there by agreeing to cover all Baldwin’s expenses—two hotel rooms (one for Baldwin and his romantic partner and another for Baldwin’s longtime assistant), plus food, drinks, entertainment, and a few hundred dollars on top for whatever else he might need—and by promising to manage every detail of the assignment himself, beginning with meeting the writer at the Atlanta airport. Baldwin’s flight was late, and the airline announced that the arrival gate had changed, so Lowe ran from one side of Hartsfield International to the other, only to find out that the announcement was wrong and then race back to the original gate. When he finally saw Baldwin for the first time, the writer “was about as far from sober as he was from France,” and announced, tiredly, “I put myself entirely in your care.”
For Lowe, the experience was, in the end, a bit like agreeing to be the attaché of the Cat in the Hat. Mercurial, easily distracted, and demanding, Baldwin passed much of his time in Atlanta ordering room service, getting pedicures, visiting with friends, taking calls from the likes of Coretta Scott King and Andrew Young, and drinking a lot of Stolichnaya. But around the edges of all that Baldwin did his homework: visiting crime scenes, talking with local leaders about the case, interviewing family members of the children. One night, after turning on the news and learning that another child had gone missing, Baldwin wanted to go downtown to observe protesters who were gathering at City Hall. It was late, and Lowe offered to go and take a tape recorder so that Baldwin could stay at the hotel, but Baldwin insisted that he wanted to go and, once he was there, the student protesters recognized him. “Hey, brothers and sisters!” one of them shouted. “James Baldwin is here! We got Brother James Baldwin here!”
“Brother James” was a welcome presence in the city: murders and disappearances like those happening in Atlanta rarely got the attention that routinely attended the disappearance and murder of white children, and black writers were not often given the platform that white ones were for writing about crimes of any kind, much less those with black victims. In 1952, when Zora Neale Hurston covered the murder trial of Ruby McCollum, a black woman accused of killing the white doctor who raped her, it was for the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential black newspaper with a circulation of a few hundred thousand; Playboy, in the early eighties, had a circulation of around five million. Baldwin was a national name writing for a national magazine, and he would have both a bigger audience for his crime story and far more space and time than a weekly newspaper could ever give him to report it.
Baldwin stayed in Atlanta for a few weeks, though it would be nearly a year before his article finally appeared. In it, he wrote that he “sometimes cursed the editor whose brainstorm this had been,” since his reporting was some of the most difficult he had ever undertaken. For his part, Lowe later noted that “one of the unfortunate aspects of being an editor for a major periodical publication is that you’re sometimes in the uncomfortable position of having to coax a creative person to produce on a deadline.” “Coax” was a gentle way of putting it; Lowe ended up having to harass one of his favorite writers by phone, by letter, and in person, including in one shocking fight that made Lowe worry that he had ruined the entire project. That fight came about because Playboy had teased the essay in one month’s issue, promising it would appear in the next one, and, as that deadline grew dangerously near, Lowe’s anxiety gave way to anger. “Stop bullshitting me,” he shouted at Baldwin, in the presence of the writer’s entourage, including the pedicurist who had been summoned to his room to take care of an ingrown toenail. (“Now, you see? I’ve cut Mr. Baldwin’s foot!” the man exclaimed.) “I think you’re so addicted to being the famous James Baldwin that you haven’t the stomach for writing like him,” Lowe continued. “You’re getting old. The fire isn’t there anymore. So you’re trying to drink yourself to death.” When, in a brief quiet moment, Baldwin calmly asked, “Are you finished?” Lowe snapped, “No, I’m not.”
There’s no trace of any of this drama in the Playboy article, which Baldwin wound up delivering a day before it was due. “The Evidence of Things Not Seen” begins near what was then the ending, with the selection of the judge for the trial of Wayne Williams, who had been charged with murder in the case now known as atkid, an acronym, referring to the city of residence and the age of the victims, created by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Baldwin presumes some knowledge on the part of his audience about the crimes, and it takes him a few pages before he offers a litany of all the murdered children: each name, age, date last seen, date of death, and cause of death, punctuated by the line, “Bring out your dead.” The first two boys had gone missing in July of 1979, and, by April of the next year, some of the mothers of the missing children had joined together to form the Committee to Stop Children’s Murders, which brought more media attention to what would soon be nine confirmed murders. A task force came together that summer, too, and eventually fifty officers were involved in investigating the increasing number of cases—looking for suspects but also looking for links, because it was never entirely clear how many, if any, of the atkid murders were related.
Even a fact as basic as the victim count was up for debate. While some claimed the number of cases was overestimated, others pointed to dozens of additional children who disappeared over the same three-year period yet were never included in the total, and still others noted that more children disappeared under similar circumstances even after Wayne Williams was in prison. All this made the matter of culpability even more confusing. Some believed that a single serial killer was at work, if not Williams then someone else, but many did not, and there were plenty of other theories about who was killing black children. One of the most persistent of these pointed to pedophiles, possibly even a network of child pornographers. Another theory alleged that the Ku Klux Klan was involved, and that the murders were committed in order to instigate a race war. The authorities further muddied the case by insisting that two adult men who were found dead must have been related to the child murders because of where their bodies were discovered, and then because they found fibre evidence on those bodies that supposedly matched similar evidence found on ten of the murdered children.
Baldwin took a particular interest in this search for connections, which he saw as both an understandable human impulse and also a pathological way of thinking about black life. The ages of the victims, the locations where they had disappeared, the causes of their deaths, and the sites of their recoveries were too different to logically connect the crimes to a single perpetrator; the only “pattern” Baldwin could see was that all the victims were black and poor and that, because of those two facts, their cases were never investigated with sufficient rigor. To his mind, the authorities’ belated efforts to solve the crimes were less about seeking justice than ending the press scrutiny that the killings had attracted.
Meanwhile, some members of law enforcement insisted—accurately, if defensively—that there was nothing statistically significant about these disappearances and deaths: Atlanta had one of the highest murder rates in the country, and more than the alleged number of atkid children had gone missing every year for some time. It was the media’s interest, stoked in desperation by the families of the victims, that linked the cases; eventually, that interest, as important it was, became its own kind of injury. “Black death has never before elicited so much attention,” Baldwin wrote, but “the publicity, given to the slaughter becomes, itself, one more aspect of an unforgivable violation.” The families were grateful for anything that might lead to more thorough police work and pressure on the authorities, but it made a spectacle of their grief. After the twentieth victim was found, early in 1981, Ronald Reagan, the newly elected President, was pressed to comment on the case. Eventually, in an effort to prove the “color blindness” of his Administration, he dispatched more than a million dollars and his own Vice-President to Atlanta to support public-safety campaigns and the criminal investigation.
A generation of Atlanta’s children, especially those in working-class and black neighborhoods, were traumatized by advertising that warned them not to go anywhere alone, and then by a curfew that forbade them from being on the streets between eleven at night and nine in the morning. Psychics poured into the city, claiming to have leads; citizen crime-watchers patrolled neighborhoods, sometimes armed with bats. A police stakeout finally led to a supposed break in the case, in May, 1981, after officers heard a splash in the Chattahoochee River early one morning. They were waiting near one of the many bridges that had been targeted for surveillance, because some of the children’s bodies were found in local waterways; after hearing something fall into the river, the police stopped a car that had just crossed the bridge. It was three in the morning, and Wayne Williams claimed that he was out verifying the address of a woman he had an appointment with the next day.ADVERTISEMENT
That stop might’ve gone nowhere, and hardly seemed like a break, but, two days later, the body of a twenty-seven-year-old man washed up near where Williams had been questioned. After he failed a polygraph test, police linked hairs and fibres from his home and car to the body of another adult murder victim; the prosecution would later argue that similiar fibres were also on the bodies and at the crime scenes of some of the murdered children. No other evidence linked Williams to those children directly, but, by the time he went to trial, rumors had surfaced that he was gay, and eyewitnesses claimed to have seen him with some of the victims.
“He is not, literally or legally, accused of being a mass murderer,” Baldwin wrote, of Williams, “but he is the only suspect, and he is assumed to be a mass murderer.” It was a peculiar prosecution: authorities wanted to suggest that Williams was responsible for all of the child murders, even though they charged him with none of them. Williams was a twenty-three-year-old black man, and many people were reluctant to believe that any, much less all, of the murders could have been committed by a black person. Commentators, including Baldwin, noted that, judging from his age, race, and Zip Code, Williams seemed more likely to have been one of the victims than to be the perpetrator.
As that suggests, Baldwin was less interested in the race of the perpetrator or perpetrators than in the imperilled status of Atlanta’s black children. Some of what drew him to writing about the cases was the opportunity to expose the reality of life in the heart of the supposed “New South,” the city that was allegedly too busy to hate. Atlanta had elected its first black mayor in 1973, and Maynard Jackson was well into his second term when the murders started. Jackson had worked hard to integrate the city’s police force, and it was a black police chief who oversaw the atkid investigation. When Wayne Williams went to trial, it was a black superior-court judge who presided and then sentenced him to life in prison. Atlanta had been heralded as a metropolis of opportunity and equality, but Baldwin found that recognition suspect, and he used his coverage of the child murders to argue that the crimes were representative of the way that the city and the country still failed to protect black lives. In the eyes of David Leeming, Baldwin’s biographer, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen” is “to the aftermath of the ‘civil rights’ movement what ‘The Fire Next Time’ had been to its heyday.”
Leeming calls Baldwin our Jeremiah, and, fittingly, the latter-day prophet refused to let readers believe in the fiction of an America that valued black lives or did anything but try to thwart black accomplishment. “The Evidence of Things Not Seen” is less a coda to Baldwin’s career than its refrain: it includes a bracing account of the fight for civil rights, which he portrays not so much as a movement but as an insurrection, one that was actively and often violently suppressed by white people. What little integration had occurred in Atlanta, Baldwin observes, had devastated black-owned businesses and crippled every institution of black power except for the church. Every night, whites fled downtown for the suburbs while blacks were left to fend for themselves, absent municipal protection or civic support. The few black Americans who, like James Baldwin or Maynard Jackson, rose to positions of power did not make a pattern; children whose names were carved onto headstones, one after another, their murders unsolved, did.
In that context, what look like conspiracy theories about who was killing black children—pedophiles, the Ku Klux Klan—seem more likely than the notion proposed by the police, that a single black suspect could have committed all twenty-some murders. The point, for Baldwin, was precisely that many different things had killed those children; their deaths were overdetermined, not aberrant. In a preface to “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” Baldwin writes, “It never sleeps—that terror, which is not the terror of death (which cannot be imagined) but the terror of being destroyed.” He could summon that fear and dread because he himself had “once been a Black child in a White country.”
Aversion of Baldwin’s argument is advanced by many of those interviewed in HBO’s “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered”—including, powerfully, by surviving family members of the victims, who still today cry out for justice and call out the failures of the authorities in the case. In the thirty-five years since “The Evidence of Things Not Seen” was published, Williams has continued to plead his innocence of all the crimes, though he has been repeatedly denied parole and had his convictions upheld, and no additional charges have been brought for any of the other murders. It was a fate that Baldwin foresaw. He ends his book by suggesting that it is “perfectly possible that Wayne Williams must be added to the list of slaughtered black children.” He meant that Williams was almost certainly falsely accused, and that the criminal-justice system remained indifferent to his fate. But something else seemed perfectly possible to Baldwin, too: given the panic over Williams’s alleged homosexuality, either fate, murdered or accused, might just as easily have been Baldwin’s. “We all came here,” he writes, “as candidates for the slaughter of the innocents.”
If you want to believe that equal opportunity has arrived for black Americans, you will be inclined to regard black mayors and black police chiefs and celebrated black novelists as the rule and black murder victims as the exception; Baldwin understood that something closer to the opposite was true. The “evidence” in his book’s title is not just forensic but epistemological: it refers not only to what gets collected by police and presented at trial but also to what we want to believe and how far we will go to sustain those convictions, whether they are about the existence of the New South or the guilt of Wayne Williams. Perhaps nowhere is this ongoing tension more pronounced than during a moment in the documentary when Williams speaks from prison by phone with a gathering of surviving family members, some of whom believe he is innocent, and with law-enforcement officials, who do not. Watching that scene, it is impossible not to register the way that the beliefs and positions of those gathered to listen are far removed from the material evidence itself, dependent on so many other things outside of the murders.
Baldwin drew his title from the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, where the epistle writer long thought to be the Apostle Paul (although probably not really him) wrote that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The Greek word that the translators of the King James Bible rendered as “evidence”— ἔλεγχος—means something much closer to “conviction” than to “proof.” In that sense, for Baldwin, the things not seen were justice and equality; his faith in them came not from having experienced either but nonetheless remaining committed to both. “The Evidence of Things Not Seen” is angry and biting and beautiful, and it ends with a strange and stirring appeal not to what America is—for it was a disappointment and a heartbreak to Baldwin—but to what it could be: “the last best hope of earth,” as Baldwin writes, invoking, without any attribution beyond italics, Abraham Lincoln. “I know this sounds remote, now, and that I will not live to see anything resembling this hope come to pass,” Baldwin writes. “Yet, I know that I have seen it—in fire and blood and anguish, true, but I have seen it.”
Casey Cep is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her first book, “Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee,” was published in May.