In the past year alone, there have been many successful podcasts, like the LA Times' "Dirty John," which has recently been picked up by Bravo to become a series starring TV royalty Connie Britton, as well as NPR's S-Town, a "Southern gothic" involving petty crime, suicide, and murder within a small Alabama town. In all of the above, there's depth, there's drama, and there's a resolution at the end.
But one of the most talked about true crime podcasts, second to the first season of "Serial" — which still is making ripples in the judicial system today with the announcement of its subject's trial being reopened by a Maryland court — has been Payne Lindsey's "Up and Vanished." On the podcast, he essentially solved the murder of Tara Grinstead, a teacher from Georgia who mysteriously vanished from her home in 2005. It was wholly satisfying, despite it feeling frayed at times (it was his first whack at a podcast and unlike his peers, he started as a filmmaker, not a journalist), and left the listener feeling proud, and a little thrilled, for getting to be a part of the case. And it no doubt left Lindsey feeling like the #1 podcast detective in all the land.
But, as the saying goes, lightening never strikes twice, and that certainly applies to Lindsey's sophomore podcast, "Atlanta Monster," which wrapped its final episode this past Friday March 23. After a grueling ten episodes, each over an hour long, Lindsey was only able to deliver a lackluster denouement. By trying to solve the infamous Atlanta Child Murders, the white thirty-something millennial bit off way more than he could chew and ended up with a mushy pile of regurgitated content.
Now, I don't hate the podcast as a whole or Lindsey as its host, but as someone from Atlanta, who has been aware of these heartbreaking and completely under-represented murders, it feels like a cruel joke for him, to think he can come in and solve one of the most jarring serial murder sprees in modern history. He didn't even enter the space timidly, like Brian Reed, host of the aforementioned "S-Town." Instead he galloped into the story, calling upon experts, witnesses, and detectives to rehash upsetting memories, with little pay-off. Instead of getting closure on a case involving the murder of 29 Black male teens and young adults, he ripped open a deep wound with no plan of sewing it back up.
In 1982, Wayne Williams was found guilty of murdering two men, and at the time of his sentencing, he was also categorically "guilty," in the public eye, for the many child murders that were happening in Atlanta around the same time. Back then, Williams was described as pudgy, with a short afro, glasses, and an eagerness to put people in the spotlight, including himself. He worked as a talent agent, scouting young (children) stars in hopes of creating a sensational new act; he was a radio host on his own self-made radio show; he had a police scanner and used it to trail police activity, take photos of tragic events, and then sell them to news stations. He wasn't shy. After he was arrested and sentenced, there was doubt that he was the right man to peg all those heinous murders to, and he has never actually been convicted of the Atlanta Child Murders. But once he was locked up, the murders seemed to stop. Young Black men were still getting killed, but the formulaic kidnapping, strangling, and stabbing of teenagers in quick succession came to a halt. That correlation was enough for many people, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to hold Williams responsible for everything that happened in Atlanta from 1979 to 1981.
The premise of the podcast, at its core, was to find out who the real Atlanta monster is, and to see if Williams has been wrongly imprisoned all these years like some people think. High off the success of "Up & Vanished," it's clear Lindsey was ready for something to happen — something big — just like last time. And that's the problem: the entitlement he felt as an outsider trying to get some juicy scoop. Looking back on the problematic podcast, it feels like Lindsey is the Macklemore of the genre. He's a white man who entered a space that he doesn't really belong in — with only the most basic knowledge of the Atlanta Murders case (he admits to never really having heard of them before deciding to investigate them) — he came to a rap battle with no fire to spit. Sure, he had his moment at the top, much like Macklemore with his shocking win for Best Rap Song at the Grammys, but he doesn't have the skills to do it again.
The other issue with this podcast is that Lindsey failed to find the right subject. Williams was found guilty of two murders, and potentially 20 more. There's evidence against him that he is a manipulative serial killer, which is a far more intense subject than a teenage boy from the middle of nowhere Georgia, as it was in "Up & Vanished." With such a range of victims, and such a huge number of people involved, Lindsey has too much happening. He talks to so many people: detectives, family members, police officers, journalists, near-victims, advocates, politicians, scientists. He jumps from subject to subject, so eager to find an answer that there is rarely enough context for listeners to follow along. He even talks to Williams himself (or rather, listens, because of the inmate's erratic monologues) who breathlessly promises to give Lindsey all the facts to set the record straight. He never does. Lindsey's in over his head. Because of that, in the end, he solves nothing — nothing. Throughout the season, there is earnest conversation and dissection of racial tensions in Atlanta then and now, but very little follow-up and absolutely no closure when it comes to the actual crime that Lindsey set out to solve (he instead declares there are many "monsters" which is nothing new, and a theory many have had since the beginning).
Monsters rarely show themselves for what they really are, even if you have a hit podcast.
Atlanta Monster is available on iTunes or wherever else you find your podcasts.
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