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Television

With Atlanta child murders, ‘Mindhunter’ delves into its thorniest case yet

Albert Jones, Holt McCallany and Jonathan Groff in “Mindhunter” Season 2
Albert Jones, left, Holt McCallany and Jonathan Groff in Season 2 of Netflix’s “Mindhunter,” which focuses on the Atlanta child murders.
(Courtesy of Netflix)

Forty years ago this summer, the bodies of Edward Hope Smith and Alfred James Evans, both 14, were discovered in a wooded area of southwest Atlanta — the first of 24 mostly male children, from 7 to 17, abducted, killed and disposed of in and around the city from 1979 to 1981. One presumed victim, Darron Glass, is still missing, and no one has ever been charged with the killings.

Now, five months after Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that state, county and municipal authorities would review evidence from the cases known collectively as the “Atlanta child murders,” one of Netflix’s most high-profile series is re-examining the crimes too.

In Season 2 of “Mindhunter,” from executive producer David Fincher (“Zodiac”), the series’ protagonists, FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), consult on the investigation into the deaths, bringing to bear the criminal profiling techniques they’ve developed interviewing serial killers for the bureau’s new Behavioral Science Unit. Their Atlanta-based liaison is a black FBI agent named Jim Barney (Albert Jones), who spends much of his time reminding Ford of the sociopolitical context in which he finds himself.

It’s new and potentially sensitive terrain for the drama, which has largely focused on cases already adjudicated, whether in the era portrayed in the series (such as those of Edmund Kemper and Richard Speck) or since (“BTK” killer Dennis Rader, who pleaded guilty to 10 murders in 2005).

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By contrast, doubts remain over the perpetrator of the Atlanta child murders: Many of the killings were attributed to Wayne Williams, a self-proclaimed music promoter who in 1982 was convicted in the murders of two adult men, but he was never tried or found guilty in any of the cases involving children.

“They’re re-opening the investigation after all this time because no one believes that Wayne Williams murdered all those kids,” McCallany said. “Nobody.”

And, as both he and Groff noted, the nature of the crimes — targeting black youths in a city with a long history of racial injustice, then under the administration of its first black mayor — created a tense atmosphere around the case.

“As you know, serial killers rarely ever cross racial lines, so if you have a lot of young black boys being abducted and murdered, the chances are that you’re looking for a black killer or killers,” McCallany said. “But because of the racially charged history of that part of our country, there were a lot of people who didn’t want to believe that and wanted to believe that the crimes were racially motivated. … They were very hesitant to embrace the idea that we were looking for a black perpetrator.”

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“There was so much going on politically in that time in Atlanta,” Groff pointed out, citing the historic election of Mayor Maynard Jackson, the expansion of the city’s airport and the pressures of urban growth. “The last thing they needed was huge national attention at this level.”

Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany conduct an interrogation in Netflix’s “Mindhunter.”
Jonathan Groff, left, and Holt McCallany, right, in Netflix's "Mindhunter."
(Courtesy of Netflix)

Groff credited this season’s head writer, Courtenay Miles, with the level of detail “Mindhunter” brings to the case: Though raised predominantly in Montgomery, Ala., Miles was born in Atlanta and spent summers and holidays there growing up. “It’s sort of my second hometown,” she said when reached by telephone.

“I distinctly remember those two summers, 1980 and 1981,” Miles recalled. “I was about 14, 15. I was kind of the same age as some of these kids. Of course, my perspective was [that of] a white kid, and certainly all of these victims were from the African American community, but even so, there was a tremendous fear that permeated that city at the time. It was sort of the pivot point of carefree youth.”

The Atlanta killings are part of John Douglas’ ​memoir “Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit,"​ on which the series is based, and the case has received in-depth treatment in Chet Dettlinger and Jeff Prugh’s “The List,” James Baldwin’s “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” and the popular 2018 podcast “Atlanta Monster.” Nor is it new to TV: A 1985 CBS miniseries, a 2000 Showtime movie and a three-part Investigation Discovery documentary that aired earlier this year have all tackled the subject.

The sensational, and sensationally bad, coverage of the 1980s child murders obscured the real story, as a Showtime movie suggests.

Jonathan Groff and Albert Jones get into a car in “Mindhunter” Season 2.
Jonathan Groff, left, and Albert Jones in a scene from "Mindhunter" Season 2.
(Courtesy of Netflix)

Miles also conducted research of her own, spending more than a month in Atlanta combing through news and photographic archives, speaking to friends and family members, and cold-calling “people involved in the investigation.”

“What we’re interested in, and what David [Fincher]’s always interested in, is creating a world that is meticulously crafted to the period and that we’re not just sort of generalizing,” Miles said, declining to name those she interviewed in her research. “And so, when I interviewed people, I said, ‘I’m not here to get quotes. I’m not here to get anybody supporting a theory. I’m here to understand and to get as much accurate detail as I can.’”

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But Netflix confirmed to the Times that the victims’ families were not contacted about the Atlanta killings’ prominent role in Season 2 of “Mindhunter,” including two of the stricken women Ford meets during his introduction to the case: Camille Bell, mother of 9-year-old Yusuf Bell, found dead in 1979; and Venus Taylor, mother of 12-year-old Angel Lenair, found dead in 1980. (A third, Willie Mae Mathis, mother of 11-year-old victim Jeffery Mathis, died in 2006.)

While Miles insisted the aim of the plot is to illustrate the consequences when Ford and Tench bring new insights about profiling “out of the basement” and onto a national stage, as Groff contended, it’s also “the first time ... [the characters] really dive into speaking with victims.”

Bell, played by June Carryl, is a key figure in the season, emerging as the primary representative of the victims’ families. In addition to her skepticism of the boyish FBI agent in her midst, she expresses the black community’s frustration at the failures of local officials. “Eleven black children had to die for this city to take us seriously,” she says, spitting mad, in a rousing scene near season’s end. “Eleven. Now they tell us they’re turning over every stone. ... We know what isn’t being done. We know what isn’t being said.”

As portrayed in “Mindhunter,” the reasons are legion. Institutional sclerosis hinders attempts to lure the killer out of hiding. Atlanta’s white supremacist past clashes with the ostensible promise of the “new South,” as various theories of the case threaten to create political upheaval within the city’s opposing constituencies. And the systemic factors that endanger black children in the first place are the same that lead their deaths to be overlooked.

“If you’re looking for a monster, it’s poverty,” a white detective tells Ford at one point, dismissing the notion of a serial killer. “These kids are growing up vulnerable, scrounging for pennies in high-risk situations, surrounded by violence, sometimes in their own homes. Family services already had files on some of these.”

Groff and McCallany acknowledged that a story arc about two white interlopers from Virginia investigating a series of crimes against black children must avoid the “white savior complex” so common to depictions of urban race relations on TV.

“The idea that we’re going to come in and solve a case, but also prove our theory, it’s potentially a very ...” Groff began.

“Self-serving,” McCallany interjected.

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“Yeah, self-serving purpose,” Groff concluded.

In this, Season 2 of “Mindhunter” — which also depicts Charles Manson and “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz, among others — might be seen as a reflection of, or confrontation with, its own relationship to the Atlanta killings, the wounds of which are still unhealed four decades later.

“Holden definitely has some blinders in his personality, and he’s chock full of good intention, which isn’t always a good guardrail for how to behave,” Miles said. “We certainly tried to dramatize that aspect of someone coming in completely from the outside with their own, well-intended mission, and landing in a culture that they do not understand and that they haven’t potentially taken all the time to understand.”

‘Mindhunter’

Where: Netflix
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under 17)


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