HBO’s “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children” premiered Sunday, April 5th at 8 p.m. ET.
The five-part documentary series explores the tragedy that the city of Atlanta endured from 1979 to 1981 when at least 30 African American children and young adults were abducted and brutally murdered.
After 23-year-old Wayne Williams was convicted of two of the murders, the remaining cases were closed and attributed to Wayne without further investigation. Grief-stricken mothers were left without closure and their questions went unanswered.
After the official re-opening of the case by Atlanta’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, executive producers Sam Pollard, Maro Chermayeff, Jeff Dupre, and Joshua Bennett are shedding new light on the murders that took place forty years ago.
Through exclusive interviews and archival footage, viewers are given a raw look into the heart-wrenching emotion the people of Atlanta faced. A city that once dismissed the violent murders of its children is now recognizing and memorializing the victims and families who were forgotten.
We had the fortunate opportunity to conduct an interview with one of the executive producers and directors of the project Sam Pollard. Pollard discusses reasons for his attraction to the project, his process of creativity, and the tragic emotion he experienced like never before.
Check out the exclusive interview with Sam Pollard below!
The Knockturnal: What drew you to this project?
Sam Pollard: Well, in 2017 I had just finished the documentary about Maynard Jackson and in that documentary, there was a little segment I did about the Atlanta Child Murders and the impact it had on him as the mayor of the city. It was only about 4 or 5 minutes … Maro Chermayeff, Jeff Dupre, and Joshua Bennett had seen that film and they thought that the section on the Atlanta Child Murders was worthy of a longer piece. So they put together a very, very substantial proposal about the Atlanta Child Murders and the history of Atlanta during that period; we submitted it to HBO because we had previous relationships with HBO and they have us a green light in the summer of 2018 and we were off to the races as they say.
The Knocturnal: So, what were some of your expectations going into the documentary?
Sam Pollard: The biggest challenge that we knew we had to contrive was to not just make it a who done it. You know, most of what had been done about the Atlanta Child Murders was the podcast ‘Atlanta Monster’ or the Minehunters series—season 2 or the ‘Investigation Discovery’ that was just done last summer. They all really walked away with the fact that Wayne Williams was the murderer. And we thought that this series could be much more layered and much more complex, and that maybe Wayne Williams wasn’t a murderer, maybe he might have been involved with some of the murders, and maybe there were other people or other groups that might have been involved in the murders. So, we really wanted to do a much deeper and richer dive into looking at this story of Atlanta and the Atlanta Child Murders.
The Knockturnal: That’s great. So, in the first episode, I thought one of the most emotional scenes is when the mayor reads off the names of the murdered children and we see clips of the families from the funerals. Can you explain the importance of that scene?
Sam Pollard: We really just wanted to set the idea that the mayor took it seriously that all these young people that died had the impact that it had on their families. So, when she read the list of names off, we knew that with our editing it was our part to figure out not just how to have her just read the names off but to visually illustrate the names as she read them off. We were very fortunate to have two wonderful archival producers: Judy… and Amy… who were able to dig deep into the archives and find all those different funerals and burials that we were able to use in that section, which made it very, very powerful.
The Knockturnal: That leads me to my next question, the archival footage in the series is incredible. Can you talk about your process in accessing the clips and how you decided on which ones to include?
Sam Pollard: Well you know, one of the most important things about doing these kinds of documentaries is to really know that you want to bring on some very strong archival producers that will do the deep dive, not just the surface dive into looking at material. And these two archival producers Judy and Amy are at the top of their game. And they will always go the extra mile, not just go to NBC or CBS but any local news stations or anybody that might have home movies, or go to the police departments, or go through newspapers. They went the extra mile, always to try to find material. They would call back the family members if we needed pictures of some of the young men and young women. They went back and they would ask so many questions to just find as much as they could. When you have all kinds of producers like that, it makes putting together a series like this extremely powerful because you have access to so much material. We had access to hours and hours and hours and hours’ worth of material.
The Knockturnal: The interviews with the moms were really strong. What was it like to talk to the mothers about losing their children?
Sam Pollard: It was tremendously powerful and also very sad. I mean, when we sat in front of these mothers and sometimes the siblings of some of the victims, it was emotionally wrenching to have them relive one of the most horrific events in their lives; and we would do two hour, two-and-a-half hour interviews and by the time those interviews were over not only were we exhausted but we knew that they were exhausted, emotionally exhausted. I think of all the interviews I’ve done in my career; these have been some of the most wrenching, the most impactful, and the most emotional interviews I’ve ever been involved with.
The Knockturnal: Wow. In one word, what best describes the emotion this series projects do you think and why?
Sam Pollard: If I had to think of one word, I would say the word would be tragic. The tragedy of what happened during those two years, the tragedy of the impact that it had on the families of the victims, the tragedy it had on basically opening the wound that has not completely been healed of the city of Atlanta. So, I would say tragic.
The Knockturnal: So, these murders began in 1979, what was your personal experience in hearing about them and seeing the stories on the news.
Sam Pollard: Well I guess I was about 29 years old. And I was a married man, I had a son, and the community I grew up in which was in New York City, we all knew about the Atlanta Child Murders and how fearful it was. And as Brenda Muhammad says in the film ‘there was a monster out there’ and even though this monster was touching the children in Atlanta, young black children across the country who heard this story were fearful. You could be in New Jersey, you could be in North Carolina, and your parents would be worried about you because we knew when this murderer hit, we knew murderers hit outside the city of Atlanta. So, I remember it being a story that captured the sights and sounds of what was happening in that city and touched a lot of us around the country and the world.
The Knockturnal: Yeah definitely. In your opinion why should people watch this documentary?
Sam Pollard: I think they should watch because first of all, it’s a powerful story of history about the city of Atlanta and what they had to struggle within those two years. It’s a powerful story because of the fact that nothing is simply black and white and that the story of the Atlanta missing and murdered children, they’re a very complex and layered story that has many aspects to it. And it gives an audience an opportunity to see that, as I was saying in the very beginning, maybe Wayne Williams wasn’t a murderer and if he was, did he have accomplices? Was he not the only person involved in these murders? Could it have been somebody in the Klan? Could it have been someone in the police department? So, we raised lots of issues which I think makes this for a very complex and engaging storytelling.
The Knockturnal: My last question is, do you think the families were able to get the closure that they wanted?
Sam Pollard: Well, I would say this. I would say that some of these family members, some of these mothers…I think they’re looking, and I think this is gonna happen, I think the city is going to realize and recognize that there was a tragedy with these young children and adults were horribly killed—murdered and that they kind of memorialized them in some way that the city has never done before. Will the city re-opening these cases ever find out who the actual murderer and murderers were if it wasn’t Wayne? I’m not sure if that’s the case but I think they understand the need to memorialize the kids, the young people, the young adults whose lives were lost in that two-year period.
You can stream “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children” now on HBO.