By Dr. Joycelyn Wilson
Certain dates color the culture of Atlanta, Georgia. February 27 is one of them, a date that marks a time many want to forget.
This year marked the 37th since a jury convicted Wayne Williams for the murders of Jimmy Ray Payne and Nathaniel Cater — two of 30 African American young people, between the ages of 7 and 27, kidnapped and slaughtered between the heat of summer in 1979 and May 1981. No one was ever charged for the other 28.
The Atlanta Child Murders were one of the darkest times for the city’s post-Civil Rights Movement generation — black Atlantans born between 1965 and 1988, the same generation that later helped created Dirty South hip-hop.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms was 9 years old in 1979 when Edward Hope Smith and Alfred Evans went missing. Abducted four days apart, they were the first boys to go missing. In an emotional interview with Neima Abdulahi of the local NBC affiliate, my city’s 60th mayor spoke candidly about her decision to commit resources to memorializing Smith, Evans, and the other missing and murdered children. She went a step further to address why she and Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields believe a re-investigation of the evidence collected from these savage murders is timely and necessary.
Thirteen-year-old Curtis Walker disappeared in February of 1981 and then was found strangled to death. If he had not been stripped of the opportunity to live a life fulfilled, Walker would be in his early 50s now. Over the years, his mother, Catherine Leach, has appealed many times to the Atlanta City Council to preserve the legacies of her child and all the murdered children. But the city and its political leaders have done a remarkable job of keeping the terrifying history of these murders under wraps since Williams was convicted in 1982, and Leach’s pleas came to no avail.
But her requests resonated differently for Mayor Bottoms and Chief Wright. In an announcement made during a press conference on March 21, Mayor Bottoms said, “It may be there is nothing left to be tested. But I do think history will judge us by our actions, and we will be able to say we tried.”
The fascination with how, when, and why these murders took place has created an equally powerful fascination with who committed them. Many believe Williams was the sole murderer. Others are convinced he had help. Even the families of some of the murdered youth aren’t convinced the Atlanta Police Department, the Georgia Bureau of Investigators, and FBI turned over every stone.
The murders gripped the nation and the world. Books were written. In one of his last essay collections, 1985’s The Evidence of Things Not Seen, James Baldwin wrote about the murders and called Williams’ conviction into question. In February of 1985, CBS released a miniseries called “The Atlanta Child Murders.” I was scared shitless as a 12-year-old watching what amounted to a horror film during prime time. I don’t remember it ever airing again.
The Atlanta Child Murders are an American horror story, and in recent years, the media have again become fascinated. Five years ago, VH1 producers connected the child murders to the evolution of Atlanta hip-hop in their 90-minute documentary “ATL: The Untold Story of Atlanta’s Rise in the Rap Game.” I appeared in the film, but the finished product did not go deeper than the basic premise that Atlanta’s hip-hop generation used rap music as a vehicle to emerge from the darkness of that period. Maurice Hobson, a historian and associate professor at Georgia State University, dedicated a chapter to the murders in his 2017 book The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta. Last year, the podcast “Atlanta Monster” introduced Atlanta’s tragedy to people who knew nothing about the murders, but the victims got lost in all the hype around Atlanta’s entertainment, film, and technological affordances. And in late March, the Florida-born filmmaker Will Packer heightened interest in the murders for a new generation with his three-part docuseries “The Atlanta Child Murders” for Investigation Discovery. Packer’s docuseries has attracted more than 3.5 million viewers.
And then there is the music of the murders.
Rapper and storyteller Andre “3000” Benjamin dropped insight and perspective on the Atlanta Child Murders as recently as 2016 — on “the ends,” the opening song on Houston rapper Travis Scott’s sophomore album, “Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight.” In a narrative about the lingering trauma — our generation’s Neighborhood Survivor’s Guilt — 3 Stacks raps about the impact the times had on his life.
I came up in the town, they were murderin' kids,
And dumped 'em in the creek up from where I live.
Bodies, bodies, bodies sprinkled around.
We runnin' through the sprinkler, lookin' around.
Killer would show up with boxes of pizza,
And said he had a label, recruitin' people.
Put that on my grandma and everything,
My homie said he told 'em his name was Wayne.
It could've been me, it could've been you too.
But what a memory in me, it may need interludes.
What's gon' patch up my inner tube
So I could pop a wheelie and walk it too?
Twenty years before, under the rap moniker “Dre,” Benjamin addressed the effects of the murders. He did it on GOODie MOb’s “Thought Process,” the song I believe introduces us to the metaphor of “trap” to describe what I like to call the sacred universe of Down South rap.
Now as an Outkast, I was born,
of the harm
That would come to meet me like MetLife,
but yet life
Done sent me through a lot of ups and downs
like it ain't nothin’…
We trapped off in this maze
with walls made of layers
And only prayer
is the tightest game that you can have…
He ends with:
Nobody would die in cops and robbers when we used to play, right?
Huh, the only thing we feared was Williams, Wayne...
I have a theory: The music, storytelling, folklore, and culture that emerge from the poor and marginalized communities of Atlanta — what we call “trap” — are built on the generational, psychological, linguistic, and ideological roots that grew from the traumas of the Atlanta Child Murders. If you didn’t know who Williams, Wayne was, that verse might take on different meaning.
The grip of these murders reach far beyond Atlanta’s city limits. “Thought Process” and “The Ends” are only two explicit examples. There are others.
My family was here, right in the thick of it all, traveling back and forth on Interstate 20 between Atlanta and Tuscaloosa to avoid potential tragedies. And so were thousands of black kids who came of age in those two years when hip hop culture was emerging and Wayne Williams was terrorizing the youth. Mayor Bottoms is a product of this generation. And so is Williams. It’s an eerie feeling to know he, too, is from the Westside, and a graduate of Frederick Douglass High School.
The fact makes me feel some type of way.
Professionally, I have been documenting this “sacred universe” of Down South hip-hop for 20 years, first as a music journalist and now as a cultural studies scholar. I have dedicated a substantial portion of my career to writing about black music in the American South and black people navigating the South. My goal is to draw connections — good, bad, or ugly. I want to demonstrate hip-hop music’s connections to the experiences of my generation, including the Atlanta Child Murders. I define Down South Trap Music as an extension of what Pimp C refers to as “country rap tunes.” That is, a set of authentic ideologies from the trap — about pain, pleasure, politics, pimpin’, and progress — told over musical compositions that merge the stylistic features of hip hop with Southern blues, soul, funk, gospel, reggae, R&B, and everything in between.
I have learned that the “trap” metaphor is one of Down South hip hop’s greatest innovations. It reaches beyond the musical term “hip-hop”; trap is a universal descriptor for “becoming.” It builds on the blues aesthetics of black music. It encompasses black American cultural productions since the 14th century, when enslaved Africans were first brought to the South. It has grown to identify the conscious and unconscious experiences of marginalized populations beyond the American South. It helps us to patch up that inner tube — those gaps Benjamin raps about in “the ends.”
To get to the heart of what is truly a native performance-turned-music genre, we must wed it to the theories, narratives, and stories we will use to memorialize what we all lived through, such as the Atlanta Child Murders. That’s also why it was important Mayor Bottoms elected to give the evidence another go, in an age of scientific innovation, where we can examine it with tools we never dreamed about 40 years ago.