HBO Docuseries Sheds New Light on Atlanta Child Murders and Why Case ‘Didn’t Smell Right,’ Filmmaker Says

“Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered” five-part series premieres Sunday

It’s been 40 years since 30 children and young adults were murdered in Atlanta, Georgia, sending a shock wave through what was then one of the most promising up-and-coming Southern cities. Now, the questions that have plagued the victims’ families for decades are finally being reexamined in HBO’s five-part docuseries, “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered.”

To tell the complex and multi-layered story, the series dives deep into archival footage, legal documents, photographic evidence, and exclusive interviews to take a fresh look at what happened all those years ago — and it gives a voice to the tireless parents who have never stopped searching for the truth about their kids’ murders that they believe is still out there.

“There was something not quite right about how the case had unfolded, and how Wayne Williams had been arrested and convicted. It didn’t smell right,” filmmaker Maro Chermayeff, who made the series along with Sam Pollard, Joshua Bennett and Jeff Dupre, told TheWrap. “There’s a lot more there, and nothing has been done on it as far as Atlanta at that time, the political issues, the race issues, the poverty issues.”

The series chronologically details the murders of at least 30 African American children that occurred over a two-year period in Atlanta in the late 1970s and early 1980s, from the initial disappearance and discovery of two murdered teenage boys and the fear that consumed the city, to the prosecution of 23-year-old Atlanta native Wayne Williams and the rush to officially shut down the case, according to HBO.

It’s heavy subject matter to spend the better part of two years working on, Chermayeff said, but it’s nothing compared to what the mothers and family members of the murdered children have been tormented with for decades.

“I think they felt relieved,” she said of giving the families a voice in the docuseries. “Anthony Terrell had never spoken before. After his interview, he said, ‘That was one of the most profound and cathartic experiences of my life, to finally get to share and be heard.’ Most of them wanted to have their voice heard because they’d been so dismissed at the time.”

Terrell is the brother of 10-year-old Earl Terrell, who went missing after visiting a public neighborhood swimming pool in July of 1980. His body was found the next January in a wooded area with another victim, 12-year-old Christopher Richardson.

The boys’ deaths were two of several of the child murders that police pinned on Williams after he was convicted of murdering two separate men, thus allowing law enforcement to close dozens of unsolved cases. But many Atlanta citizens, including some of the victims’ families, do not believe Williams is guilty of murdering their children.

“I’m in the camp that he didn’t kill anybody,” said Chermayeff. Williams’ potential innocence and wrongful conviction is a debate heavily explored in the series, with former members of the Atlanta Police Department adamant in their belief that Williams is the sole killer, and others claiming that he was used by the city’s government as a scapegoat to put the murders to bed and preserve the burgeoning city’s public image.

“It was a PR disaster. They were building the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International airport — all those things were so critical to the city, and it was just gonna go down if this didn’t stop, and it had to stop,” Chermayeff said. “Wayne Williams got caught in those crosshairs.”

“Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered” premieres April 5 on HBO.

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