Tayari Jones was 8 years old in Atlanta’s summer of 1979 when reports of missing African American children began to dominate headlines and the evening news. By 1981, the bodies of nearly 30 children and young adults were found — including two of Jones’ classmates. A few remain missing 40 years later.
Wayne Williams, the prime suspect, was tried and convicted of murdering two adults. But most of the children’s cases, which had been attributed to the 23-year-old, never went to trial and were closed days after Williams’ 1982 sentencing.
Ever since, the Atlanta Child Murders have been the focus of books (including Jones’ 2002 Leaving Atlanta and one by James Baldwin), documentaries and scripted TV series. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has reopened the cases, and this spring HBO released a docuseries titled Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children that takes a fresh look at the killings.
ArtsATL talked with Jones, the bestselling author of An American Marriage (2018) and a professor of English and creative writing at Emory University, about what it was like to have her sense of safety upended as a child, the voice that was a balm in the midst of terror and trying to reconcile the unimaginable from a child’s perspective.
ArtsATL: Did you watch the HBO series Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children?
Tayari Jones: I do plan to watch it. . . . I’m glad there’s new attention to this case and more people are finding out about it. I think that’s important because when we say “Black Lives Matter,” this is what we’re talking about. But I am sometimes reluctant to revisit it in that it was such a difficult period of my childhood, and I don’t know how much more I need to know about it.
ArtsATL: When you remember how you experienced that era as a child, what comes to mind?
Jones: The child murders went on for about two years, which is a long time for a child — an eternity, really. So it feels as if the world is unsafe in a way that doesn’t have an end. For me, the story of the little girl being removed from her bedroom was the one that terrified me most. But I think different children had different terrifying touchstones because there were so many and fear is so idiosyncratic. As middle-class children, we were never unsupervised. So the idea that you could do everything your mother told you to be safe — yet be in your own bedroom and taken away — was hard to reconcile.
ArtsATL: How has your perception changed as you revisit the facts as an adult?
Jones: Two boys from my school were murdered. Yusuf Bell, the son of Miss Camille Bell, went to E.A. Ware Elementary School, which was just a couple blocks from my elementary school [Oglethorpe], where he came for gifted classes. He was smart, kind of quiet, a good kid . . . part of our nerdy subgroup. Terry Pue, who was a couple years older but in our class, was the other boy.
From a child’s perspective, Terry seemed like he was this older, bigger, invincible person to us. But when I was doing my research for my novel Leaving Atlanta and saw his picture, that was really the thing that broke my heart. He was just a little boy. I had been viewing him through my very, very little-kid eyes, but when I saw his picture as an adult, I could see he’s just a little kid.
ArtsATL: Children rarely have perspective on how vulnerable they are, yes?
Jones: Yes! I also realize why child murders were even more harrowing for parents because parents have a long view, kids don’t. Parents were looking at the child murders in the context of history. Also, for adults, children are symbolic people more than individuals. They see children as our future. But children don’t see themselves as the future . . . they just see themselves as themselves. For our parents, we were both our individual self and a symbolic self.
ArtsATL: What was the message for Atlanta children in the late 1970s and early ’80s?
Jones: I think the message was “Don’t talk to anyone! You don’t know who it is, you don’t know who it’s not.” That made it a more terrifying talk than “the talk” [about how to interact with the police] because you know who the policeman is because he’s wearing a uniform and is identifiable. This was different.
ArtsATL: What was the significance of Monica Kaufman’s voice and presence at a time when Atlantans were so scared and frustrated?
Jones: During dinner, we would watch the 6 o’clock news on a television that was on top of the freezer. Keep in mind, this was before Oprah, and there were no black women on TV except Monica [an anchor at WSB]. It felt like Monica was personally telling us the news. She didn’t have that newscaster’s stark objectivity. It was more like she was breaking the news to us the way you would break the news to an invested person or family.
ArtsATL: What were your thoughts when Mayor Bottoms reopened the investigation?
Jones: I was not surprised. Mayor Bottoms and I are of the same generation, we remember it and can’t let it go because it was a seminal event in our childhood.
ArtsATL: What made you write a fictionalized account of the murders in your debut novel, Leaving Atlanta, as opposed to a memoir?
Jones: I don’t have a memoir personality. You know, some people do, some people don’t.
ArtsATL: Wait a second! What is the memoir personality and why did you choose to take yourself out of the narrative?
Jones: Umm . . . I’m not that interested in my own story in a literal way. I am interested in my perspective and very interested in the world around me. When I decided to write Leaving Atlanta, I wanted to write from a child’s point of view because I think that people think of child murder as something that happens to adults. All experiences are real and create part of the tapestry of the moment, but nothing had been written from the point of view of those of us who endured it as 9- and 10-year-olds. How did this affect our coming of age? How did this join us as a generation?
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