Atlanta's Killing Season

000714 James Belushi, left, and Gregory Hines, pose in 1999 on the Toronto set of the Showtime film "Who Killed Atlanta's Children?"
AP Photo/Showtime
This week CBS News Sunday Morning's John Leonard reviews Who Killed Atlanta's Children?, which premieres July 16 on Showtime. The docudrama recalls Atlanta's serial killings in the 1980s, also the subject of Toni Cade Bambara's new novel, Those Bones Are Not My Child.
During the all-star baseball game last Tuesday night, nobody mentioned the Atlanta child murders. Atlanta moonlights in amnesia.

It has forgotten the early 1980s, when dozens of black children disappeared from parks, streets, movies and schools, to be found bludgeoned, lynched, drowned and mutilated. The City Too Busy to Hate was a magnet for bounty hunters and supercops, and a war zone of helicopters, drivebys and gun sales. In the garrison state of denial, law enforcement agencies squabbled about jurisdiction while its pols worried about losing convention dollars to a serial killer panic.

Didn't all that end with the conviction of weird Wayne Williams? Well, it shouldn't have, according to a furious new docudrama on Showtime.

Who Killed Atlanta's Children? begins with a flashback to the paranoia, the arrest, and the disbanding of the task force in 1982. It then skips to 1986, when an editor and a reporter for Spin magazine, Gregory Hines and James Belushi, are persuaded to take another look at the case by Assemblywoman Mildred Glover.

The Leonard File
Read past reviews by John Leonard.
They have their own not very interesting office and family issues, but fly south anyway and are immediately hooked by rumors of child porn and political clout, of sex rings and something fishy about the original "Missing and Murdered" list.

Outside their motel room, someone drops secret police files. An anonymous phone tip is followed by a meeting in a lowlife bar with Sean McCann, a retired Atlanta cop with guilt feelings.

He will tell them about an undercover informant in the Ku Klux Klan and a wiretap. After which, Spin magazine is no longer safe on the streets.

I'm leaving out a lot more menace and the cover-up shredding of a paper trail that suggested some of these children were target practice for the Klan. Spin did publish a good article, to no avail.

Who Killed Atlanta's Children?us that Wayne Williams was convicted of killing two adults, that probably no single person could have been responsible for all 29 children on the missing list. And that as many as 60 names should have been on that list, and that another 16 to 35 children vanished after Williams went to jail.

How much more we don't know than we do is clear from Toni Cade Bambara's amazing novel on the subject, grand and grueling, exhaustive and exalted. Those Bones Are Not My Child is written from the point of view of the mothers of the disappeared, among whom Bambara lived during the killing seasons.

It is a bill of indictment of an entire political culture and a broadloom weave of lost children and child sacrifice, from Isaac and Abraham to Iphigenia and Agamemnon, to the Pied Piper and the Gingerbread Boy. The Ku Klux Klan and maybe Nazis! Diabolical scientists, organized child molesters, snuff moviemakers, psychopathic Vietnam vets! Slave-labor gangs, satanic cults and turf-poaching drug dealers killing off the competition's couriers.

However unlikely you find these lurid scenarios, they are less obscene than the declared opinion of the guardians of public order at the time, that the kids were street hustlers who deserved what they got, or maybe their own parents wasted them.

Thanks to Showtime for remembering not to forget.