The crucial conversations about race and media coverage at the center of ‘Atlanta Monster’

Meet the duo behind the number one podcast in America right now.

CREDIT: @mistersoul216,  How Stuff Works, Tenderfoot TV
CREDIT: @mistersoul216, How Stuff Works, Tenderfoot TV

Last spring, an image of a white milk carton with the words “Find Our Girls,” set against a hot pink background, began to spread across social media like wildfire. People had suddenly become aware of more than a dozen cases of young Black girls who had gone missing in Washington, D.C. in the preceding months. A factually inaccurate social media campaign ramped up speculation that something sinister was at play, but D.C. police later confirmed that the girls had left home voluntarily before being declared missing, and that the majority of the cases being spread on social media had already been solved.

A few months later, in September, social media blew up again after 19-year-old Kenneka Jenkins walked into a Chicago area hotel with her friends for a party and never walked back out. Within 24 hours, police found her body in the hotel kitchen’s freezer. They later determined that Jenkins had walked into the freezer alone and had died of hypothermia exacerbated by alcohol and a prescription medication — but before authorities could issue their findings, social media had already pounced, fueling all sorts of theories and decrying the initial delayed response by hotel staffers.

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Word travels fast in the Black community. Viral social media campaigns are often the only way for activists, neighbors, family members, or friends to have their stories heard, and it’s logical that some of those stories will later turn out to be unintentionally false or inaccurate. But the rush to mass hysteria itself stems from something more troubling: the trauma of being Black in the United States.

For generations, Black Americans have been operating under an inherited suspicion that no one will care if the worst happens to them. This is made abundantly clear in a new weekly podcast, Atlanta Monster, by HowStuffWorks and Tenderfoot TV productions. 

Atlanta Monster tackles the dark tale of the Atlanta child murders. Hosted by Payne Lindsey and co-produced by Donald Albright, the series takes listeners back to Atlanta, Georgia during the late ’70s and early ’80s — a time when Black communities were simultaneously thriving and still fighting to overcome stubborn racial barriers.

Between 1979 and 1981, at least 28 poor Black children were kidnapped and murdered, one by one, with very little national attention. At the time, Atlanta police arrested a Black man by the name of Wayne Williams and charged him for the murder of two adult men, Nathaniel Cater and Jimmy Ray Payne, claiming that he was also responsible for 23 of the 28 child murders. In the end, Williams was only convicted for Cater’s and Payne’s murders and was never charged for the child murders. He maintains his innocence to this day. 

Most of the child murders remain unsolved.

Atlanta Monster delivers a thoughtful and poignant unmasking of the ways the Black community has been disadvantaged to the point of endangerment: right now, for instance, nearly half of the more than 88,000 active missing persons cases are children, and 35 percent of that number are Black. Atlanta Monster aims not only to bring awareness to these number, but to the systemic issues at the root of the problem.

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ThinkProgress was able to talk with host Lindsey and co-producer Albright about Atlanta Monster last week and discuss the motivation behind it, the cases themselves, and what they hope listeners take away from the series.

Photo credit: Ousman Sahko
Photo credit: Ousman Sahko

Why this story and why tell it now? Does our current social climate  — the fact that people are finally starting to listen to stories about Black suffering — factor into it?

Donald Albright: Right, that was one of the reasons why we decided to move forward with it, just giving such a big case, such a tragic case, another platform. To be able to honor these victims, and tell their story, and hopefully to be able to bring some closure to these families was one of the big factors.

I think that the race issues that we point out [in the podcast] are still here, and active today. We want to see if we can draw the parallels, the commonality between 1980 United States and 2018. If you weren’t around in 1980, you might think, “Hey everything was okay, it wasn’t the ’60s, it wasn’t the ’50s.” And I think what we found is that we made a lot of progress in some ways. But when it comes to really changing the hearts and minds, that really hasn’t been successful. And I think it’s evident just within our political climate and with race relations in America. …Just look at a few examples like Black Lives Matter or with the protesting of injustice by kneeling during the national anthem. 

Where do you both stand on the case itself, so far?

Payne Lindsey: To be honest with you, I go back and forth all the time. There’s so many parts of it that don’t make sense. Wayne is a very interesting person, a very interesting character, very peculiar. In a lot of ways, he fits the bill as someone who would at least be capable of doing this, as far as his proximity to the kids. And obviously, you have evidence [that makes it seem as if he’s capable, too]. In some ways, you could just say, “Wow this guy is really unlucky.” But you’ve got to draw the line for yourself on how unlucky can one person get before it all just adds up to legitimate circumstantial evidence.

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Albright: Yeah. I’ve learned a lot but I haven’t really delivered an answer yet. I think that’s because I believe there’s so much more that we’re going to uncover before this thing is over.

The one thing that I know that I believe is that one person or even one group of people did not commit at least 30 murders, or even 25. I do believe that there are multiple perpetrators here that are spread out and equal to the number of tragedies. So I think there is injustice in the sense that [authorities] closed 25 cases and only convicted [Wayne] of two adult murders [that were completely unrelated to the child murders].

Walk me through your process. Are you investigating, researching, and reporting week by week in real time? 

Lindsey: We spent a lot of months researching this case, talking to different people, stockpiling interviews, and going through thousands of archival clips. But now we are at a point where it has hit a real time factor. Week by week we’re getting new information. People are hearing the podcast and may have a story of their own, and they’re reaching out to us and we’re weaving that into the narrative. This story is not complete, this project is not complete. So if there’s someone out there who wants to tell their side of the story or share something with us or with the world they can do that. They have a chance.

Have you encountered any roadblocks in doing it this way?

Lindsey: There’s been several setbacks just because of the timing, it being almost 40 years ago. Finding some of these people is just very difficult. A lot of these phone numbers you would find don’t even work anymore. You don’t know if they are deceased, if they’re alive, or if you’re even looking for the right person. 

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I think we probably spent two or three days in the office back to back, and I think we called maybe like 30 or 40 people. I think nobody answered. We’re like, I don’t know if we can do this.

What has surprised you the most about this project or your findings so far?

Albright: We didn’t know what the response would be with a case this big in serialized form that is very specific to a certain community.  All African-American victims, and that the convicted killer is also African-American, that’s never been done. So we didn’t know how this would be received by the white community or the Black community. What we’ve seen is that people are discovering this [story] for the first time and they’re appreciating the fact that we’re doing it. And they’re asking themselves, “Why I’ve never heard of this before?”

[So far, the Black community] likes the way we’re handling this. The way we’re telling the story, it’s more than just talking about these tragic events. It’s about how those events shaped the culture of Atlanta and what kind of tensions were within the United States and in Atlanta at that time.

Atlanta Monster uses a lot of archival media and news to tell the story. What sources did you find most helpful when researching the cases?

Lindsey: The archives have been very helpful, at least being able to see what people were being told by the media back then. I think that’s very important to see where people got their perception of what was going on. The news clips in and of themselves are very interesting.

Albright: We tapped into a massive archive collection from [Atlanta ABC-affiliate] WSB-TV. I mean, it’s hours upon hours. I don’t know how many hours of footage it is, but we have tons of stuff to work with and it really puts everything into perspective. You can find some stuff going on YouTube. But when you actually are afforded the opportunity to hear a full 30-minute piece that was exactly how it was delivered on a specific day in 1980, it really puts you right back in that place. That’s what we try to do. Really put the listener right back in Atlanta in 1980.

Could you tell me more about how you got people to open up about this? I can imagine it’s difficult to get people talking about such a tragic sensitive topic.

Lindsey: People from law enforcement were more inclined to talk about it because they have such a strong memory of this. I think in a lot of ways they like to reflect on some of their work. I mean, for most of law enforcement, this was the biggest case they ever worked on in their whole career. So they definitely remembered it.

Albright: Losing a family member like that is tragic. The courage that [these families] have to tell these stories and do their best to honor their loved one, is amazing.

One of the things that I realized is that even people who didn’t lose a family member, who just grew up in the era, were affected in a really big way. They don’t even know how much they were affected until they start talking about their childhood, and talking about how limited they were when it came to being able to go outside, where they could play, how they had to hang around with their little brothers. This shaped how their parents raised them from that point forward, not just in Atlanta, but around the world.

I’m from California. I was only 3 or 4 years old when this was making national news. It was big enough that I remembered this my entire childhood. I can’t think back to a moment when I didn’t know it was happening, which means that it was being discussed in my household. I was being parented a certain way and being looked after a certain way. It’s riveting just to think about how impactful that is and you don’t even know it. It just changed your perception on safety.

With stories like these you’re inevitably asking the Black community to do a lot of emotional labor. How did you prepare for that?

Albright: We knew that from the very beginning. It’s the reason why I wanted to do this. I mean, I don’t want to always hear about Black people on TV for something negative. And in a case like this, yes, there’s something negative, but there’s something that can be learned from this. It brings up so many issues, like the under-reporting of Black children when they go missing.

The approach wasn’t just, “Let’s re-tell the story, let’s not say ‘Hey we’re going to investigate whether this is true or false.'” No, we’re going to investigate the psyche of our country at that time and our moral compass at that time. [We are going to] have a self reflective moment 37 years later and hold ourselves accountable. 

Some people feel that true crime podcasts can be exploitative, and there’s always a bigger conversation around the ownership of any particular story. What’s your perspective on telling a story to which you may not be personally attached?

Albright: We dealt with that more-so on Up and Vanished, [a serial podcast about the disappearance of 30-year-old teacher and pageant queen Tara Grinstead of Ocilla, Georgia], and we learned a lot from that. There wasn’t a connection really outside of Payne’s geographical connection with the state — and that’s not enough for your critics. [For Atlanta Monster], I didn’t have any issue with that. Like I said, I’m Black. As long as I’m there and can tell the story with Payne, [I can] kind of guide this, because I know what our community will hear and feel is offensive or not handled with care.

The biggest issue was, “How would our community view a white guy telling this story?” The conclusion that we came to was, I think, sometimes stories can be muted based on the storyteller. [These stories] can be marginalized because they are Black stories told by a Black person. If the story is told truthfully and with care and the victims are handled with care, it doesn’t matter who’s telling the story. And it can actually be more beneficial if it’s not [someone] from the community telling the story because it automatically reaches the ears of people on a broader scale. That’s what we’ve found. We’ll take whatever criticism comes if we can get a larger audience in return and teach them something about this country and about an era that isn’t too far removed.

Donald, you said that you’re from California, but you grew up hearing about this. Payne, in the very first episode, you say that you hadn’t heard about these murders, even though you’re from Georgia yourself. Why do you both think that is?

Lindsey: Because Donald is so old.

[Laughter]

Lindsey: Really, because I was born in ’87. My parents have a very vivid memory of this. My dad went to Georgia Tech in Atlanta and he recalls this. I had never heard of this because it had never been put in front of me before. I was never in a place where I would just stumble upon this.

But when I was presented this story, and after I really dug into it, I felt like how did I…how did I never see this? A lot of people probably feel that way. And I’ve seen that just from the responses of other people who are just like me, around my age, living in Atlanta — they’re saying the same thing. There are also tons of people who were around when it happened and they’re saying that they’re having a lot more clarity now on how things were actually being conducted back then.

Just because we have all these news clips [it still doesn’t mean everyone was aware]. Even my dad told me, “I only saw the news when I was at Dunkin Donuts. I didn’t have a TV in my house.” A lot of these people didn’t have TVs in their houses yet. There was tons of coverage, but I don’t think a lot of it was making it to the living rooms of Atlanta’s residents. 

Albright: Yeah, I think it kind of boils down to who’s affected. I mean, I think you know if all the victims are African-American, even if you know about it, it may not be something that changes your way of life if you know that you’re not in danger. I look at it like this: in the Black community, we have, as I’m sure you know, “the talk” right?

So Black parents have a talk with their kids and that’s just something that happens. How to interact with police, how to interact in any situation where you could be harmed or will be treated differently because of skin color. Conversations that are being had in households are different based on race. And the Wayne Williams conversation was happening in Black homes because it was directly affecting our community. And it’s not that those other communities didn’t care, it just wasn’t on their doorstep.

What do you hope listeners ultimately take away from this podcast?

Albright: For me, it’s that [they should understand] this was important and it should have been important, and people should be talking about it and covering it. Bringing people to that middle ground where it’s okay to have these conversations — where a 40-year-old Black guy and this 30-year-old white guy can have this conversation, come to some common ground […]. If we come away with that, I think we’ve already accomplished something, the start of a conversation.

Lindsey: I think the biggest takeaway here is a very thorough self-reflection of America. Then and now. And you know, in a lot of ways, [it’s about] learning your history, learning about these different race issues, and different perspectives that have always surrounded it and have brought us here to where we are today. Seeing both sides and bringing everyone together under this investigative journalism thread where we all want to find out what happened. And embedded in this is this deeper story about who we are in America and where we’re going next.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.