True-crime podcasts are dominating that little purple button on your phone these days, but you’ll have to forgive Up and Vanished host and co-creator Payne Lindsey for adding to his repertoire.
With his new podcast, Atlanta Monster, the 30-year-old filmmaker has put his detective skills to the test, digging into an equally disturbing, even bigger story for his sophomore podcast effort: the Atlanta Child Murders.
Between 1979 and 1981, more than 25 young victims -- most of whom were male, African-American and poor -- were killed in Atlanta. Wayne Williams, an Atlanta native who was 23 at the time of the final murder, was arrested and later convicted of the two adult murders that were connected with the killing spree. Though he wasn’t tried or convicted for any of the other cases, authorities believed many of the child murders were also connected to him.
Though he’s from Georgia, the murders occurred before Lindsey was born, and he wasn’t aware of the story until it was relayed to him by his Up and Vanished co-creator, Donald Albright. Lindsey tells ET he’s not usually attracted to stories that seem like they already have an ending to them, but after weeks of researching the horrific killing spree, he found “really compelling stuff -- a gripping story.”
“I didn't want to just retell a story that had been told before,” he admits. “It's not what I do, and it's not what I want to do. But I found very quickly that that was not the case here. There was so much that was left unsolved, and the door remains wide open for a lot of people in this case, especially the victims' families. Just going off of that, I realized there was a lot more to this story and there were conclusions that we could get to that no one had ever got to before.”
While the “Atlanta Child Murders,” as the case was dubbed, are well known in the South, in the almost 40 years since, the story has mostly vanished from national public discourse. As Atlanta Monster explores, the main reason for this fact appears to be racism. Albright muses on the case being well known and frequently discussed in the black community, but “[it] isn’t the story that it should be in comparison to Zodiac Killer and other serial killers that have made a huge impression on American society and culture.”
“Once we started looking into the Atlanta Child Murders and how much it impacted Atlanta, it kind of begged the question why don’t people feel the same way about these slayings as they do about other serial killers throughout history? In the first episode, you can kind of see why -- these victims were young, poor, black,” he says. “Whether it be 1980 or 2018, the underreporting and the lack of media coverage in those kinds of cases still exists, so that's something we planned to continue to point out throughout this podcast -- real coverage and an in-depth look that it really hasn't had.”
Racism was frequently discussed as Lindsey and Albright spoke to people connected to the case, in part to help listeners understand the conditions and atmosphere of Atlanta at the time, but also because it came up naturally in conversations. “From Day 1, race was the main factor, so we would be doing the victims a disservice and injustice if that wasn’t something we initially dove into,” Albright says. “This isn't just about kidnappings and murders -- this is about how race played a part in how law enforcement and media and the ultimate outcome of this case.”
“To me, it was just all over this case. You can't look at this even from a distance and say that race doesn't play a part in this at all, and so I chose, oftentimes, to address it immediately,” Lindsey adds.
The duo have dug deep, speaking with many of the victims’ family members as well as residents of Atlanta at the time of the murders, though they decline to say if they’ve already spoke to Williams. “We're trying to reach out to everybody and talk to everybody. In order to tell this story the right way, you have to hear from everybody,” Lindsey says, noting that they’re leaving room for more people to reach out to them as listeners find the podcast.
Whether they intended it or not, Atlanta Monster may have also helped some of the people they spoke to work through years of PTSD. “I think a lot of people didn't realize how it affected their childhood until we talked to them. After [the murders] happened, the way they were raised by their parents changed forever, and that passed down from generation to generation,” Albright explains. “It was, like, one of the first major fear campaigns from the police, from media, and I think that resonates with families -- obviously the local ones more so than anyone else -- and it conditions you as a child. We've heard stories that when this was happening, any time kids would be walking down the street late at night, they would see some headlights, they would just run. And that trains your mind as a child. So, yeah, we've seen impact in people, even if they didn't recognize it. They recognized it as they talked through it with us.”
The most surprising discovery of all, however, was how few families believe Williams is the killer. “There's so much confusion and so much lack of respect for the victims just by local authorities in closing 25 cases with only two convictions. They feel like their kids never had justice and they were just swept under the rug and the city of Atlanta chose to get rid of this rather than actually solve it,” Albright says. “There's reason on both sides of why each feels the way they do, but I expected at least to find more family members that were supporting the state's case against Wayne Williams, and that has been proven hard to find.”
Even though episodes start airing on Jan. 5, Atlanta Monster is not a finished product yet. The case is full of what Lindsey describes as “oddities,” and he admits that the story can be very confusing at times. They’ve structured the 10-week podcast in a “real-time aspect,” leaving the door open so others can reach out and add their own details once they’ve heard the story. “Even though you think we would be, we're not even close to done with our research,” Lindsey admits.
As time-consuming as creating an ongoing podcast may be, Lindsey and Albright aren’t putting the world of Up and Vanished behind them. Their original podcast, which helped crack an 11-year-old missing person’s case and has surpassed 150 million downloads, will return with a second season later this year. Its success also led Lindsey and Albright to form Tenderfoot TV -- which is producing Atlanta Monster in partnership with HowStuffWorks -- and they’re currently developing a docuseries based on Up and Vanished with Oxygen. Basically, these two aren’t sleeping, but it’s for a pretty good reason: They’re building their own documentary-style empire, with their next developments taking them out Georgia as they explore more mysteries.
Though rabid fans of Up and Vanished will have to wait a few more months for new episodes -- the men are currently investigating two possible cases for the next season -- Atlanta Monster should happily hold them over. As with Up and Vanished, Lindsey explains that in this new tale, there is again a “constant feel that you’re on this personal one-on-one journey with me,” giving listeners the opportunity to come to their own conclusions after they’ve heard all the facts.
“This is not a history lesson recap of the Atlanta Child Murders,” he says. “Now, there are history lessons built into this story because there are some really important pieces of this story that have to be told, but at the core, it's an investigative journey on this quest to find the truth, and once you get the facts and you're up to speed to where I'm at currently, then you'll be like, 'Wow, this is really crazy. Let's figure out what's going on here. I want to know the truth now, too.'”
It may seem like they’re adding to an overcrowded true-crime space, but both men believe they can create unique products. It’s not uncommon to see a number of copycats come after a massive success, as happened after Serial was released in 2016, but that’s only pushed Lindsey to make something better than what’s come before. It also helps that he and Albright met in the music industry, not in the podcast world, making them outsiders prepared to shake things up a bit, especially when it comes to marketing and developing their shows.
“It's almost kind of annoying that there's so many true-crime stories you can go find out there. How do you keep up with it? I have to not even think about it because it's too much. But who's raising the bar?” Lindsey asks. “We're trying to not be everything else. We want to be the first thing you think of when you think of stories like this. We want you to think of Up and Vanished, Atlanta Monster, and whatever else we do [next]. We're trying to raise the bar with production value and just the overall way to tell a story. There's so many rules and confines that are placed out there that aren't real, and we're trying to make something different. Somebody else is going to come top what I did anytime now, so let me be on the top of that person's work right after it.”
Despite his frustrations, Lindsey still loves the true-crime world -- it is Netflix’s Making a Murderer, after all, that helped him realize that he wanted to tell similar stories -- but he hesitates to label himself or his podcast within this realm. Gripping mysteries are simply what interests him.
“I like crime thriller TV shows. I like True Detective, Making a Murderer, Serial. The real-life stories are the ones that tell me even more, because at the end of the day you're like, 'This is really happening somewhere. This is crazy. They still don't know what happened. We can find out what happened!' Just all those kind of thoughts in your head,” Lindsey explains. “To me, it's just simple. The same reason I feel like anyone else would want to listen to Up and Vanished is the same exact reason I made it. I just so happen to be a creator. I liked it so much as a listener, as a viewer, why not spend my time and energy making something like this?”