It’s hard to miss the true crime wave that has washed over American media in the last few years. Documentaries like “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx” have had such a cultural effect that new legal action has been taken in both murder cases. Some of the most popular podcasts of all time are based on true crime, from the investigative “Serial” to the comedic “My Favorite Murder.” The niche genre has become so popular that satirical true crime documentaries such as “American Vandal” have sprung up as well.
“Atlanta Monster” is the newest chapter in the true crime novel. The 11-part podcast, produced by HowStuffWorks and Tenderfoot TV, focuses on Wayne Williams, a convicted serial killer who supposedly murdered nearly 30 people, mostly children, from 1979 to 1981. The series throws doubt on the conviction, and ponders if Wayne truly murdered all these people, or any of them for that matter. While there are bright spots over the run of the podcast, “Atlanta Monster” fails to provide any answers.
The Atlanta Child Murders, as the case is colloquially known, gripped the southern city in the early 1980s. In total, 28 murders were attributed to this case, most of whom were poor, black, male children. A task force was created to investigate with help from the FBI, but there were no real leads to follow. That was until 1981, when a large object was dropped off of a bridge into a river in Atlanta. Police pulled over a car belonging to Wayne Williams, who they believed to have dropped the object from the bridge. A few days later, a body was pulled from the river, and Williams was convicted of two murders, and attributed to the murders of the other 26 children.
“Atlanta Monster” begins covering the murders, before addressing the arrest of Williams at the end of the second episode. At this point, the narrative shifts to questioning the actual guilt of Williams. The next nine episodes cast doubt on the conviction by questioning the hasty trial, closely examining the bridge incident, and challenging police tactics. The host, Payne Lindsey, interviews detectives and FBI agents, family members of the victims, people close to Williams, and various people who lived in Atlanta during the murders. Lindsey also uses recordings of newscasts during the time, as well as a synth-heavy soundtrack that creates a dark, mysterious setting for the podcast.
One of the biggest issues with the podcast is its scope. Each of the 11 episodes are only about an hour long. But this short run time attempts to address the 28 murders, the capture of Williams, the trial and the evidence for and against William’s innocence. For reference, “Serial” spanned 23 episodes and only covered one murder. Lindsey spends very little time covering the victims or their murders, and will often bring up evidence without fully explaining it or mentioning it again. Each episode feels like a one-off story that falls under the Atlanta Child Murders umbrella, but fails to create a singular narrative. When the last episode aired March 23, the podcast left much more confusion than actual answers.
The second half of the series falters again and again when bringing up evidence for Williams’ innocence. Episode five informs the listeners that Lindsey has actually been in contact with Williams, after connecting with conspiracy theorist DeWayne Hendrix, who has been posting YouTube videos promoting Williams’ innocence. While this could represent an interesting perspective from the convicted, Williams and Hendrix only reduce the validity of Lindsey’s investigation. Williams mentions that his conviction is due to a CIA cover-up involving the White House and the Iran-Contra Scandal. Hendrix blames the child murders on a “homosexual ring” in Atlanta. And some of Lindsey’s own evidence is just as shoddy. In an episode addressing the bridge incident, Lindsey’s team drops a body-double off of the same bridge to test if it would really be loud enough to alert police nearby.
Once doubt is cast on Williams’ conviction, the podcast becomes a meandering, confusing mess. Little evidence is tied together or fully addressed, and some episodes add nothing to the narrative. For example, the bonus episode entitled “The List” examines which children are on the list of murders that the special task force is investigating, but this feels more like a mere clerical anecdote than anything else.
To Lindsey’s credit, he does a good job of casting doubt on the trial and conviction of Williams, until the last episode. There is very little forensic evidence and practically no biological evidence that connects Williams to the murders, and Williams is only actually convicted of two adult murders. Police and the media just attributed the other 26 slayings to him. But the very last episode introduces entirely new evidence for Williams’ guilt, including eye witness accounts and more forensic evidence. This quick turn makes the rest of the episodes feel wasted.
“Atlanta Monster” fails to give any concrete answers. Instead, it reopens old wounds of a horrific tragedy that held Atlanta in a chokehold. Behind a veneer of interviews and creepy music, “Atlanta Monster” hides what it truly is: a cheap attempt at riding the popularity of the true crime genre.