Okay so I’m definitely late to the Tayari Jones fandom, and I know that American Marriage is her most recent work and has been getting tons of positive attention! I actually went in search of American Marriage at 2nd & Charles, but no dice. I did, however, find a copy of her 2002 novel, Leaving Atlanta, a fictionalized account of the Atlanta child murders of 1979-1981.
Leaving Atlanta was Jones’ debut novel, written during her time as a graduate student at Arizona State University. Jones was born in Atlanta in 1970 and remembers personally the time when young black children, especially boys, were going missing and turning up dead in Atlanta. From 1979-1981, at least 28 people total were found murdered, but, as Jones informs us in her Author’s Note, the body count (of children, specifically) associated with the Atlanta child murders was slightly lower (though still above 20). “There were several other child killings in Atlanta during this period,” Jones writes, “but they were deemed ‘unrelated’ although many of the victims matched the demographic descriptions of the ‘official’ victims.”
This may not be the first time I’ve mentioned this, and it certainly won’t be the last, but one thing I always admire in an author is the ability to write believable children. Tayari Jones has done exactly that, and in an incredibly unique and terrifying situation where kids not only have to comprehend that there is a murderer loose in their city, but also that they, themselves, are potential victims. These characters are still grappling with the daily trials and tribulations of being a kid, like navigating friendships, bullies who sometimes pose as friends, and family trouble. They’re still very much children, and yet they’re also having to process the fact that someone out there is targeting them, forcing them to change the way they live, the way they play, and the way they think about the world.
In the summer of 1981, a young African American man named Wayne Williams was charged with murdering two Atlanta adults. An official investigation into his possible involvement in the child murders was never opened, but many Atlanta officials and residents assumed he was responsible, and the search for the Atlanta child murderer came to a halt. Not everyone was convinced, however. Many believed these child murders to be the work of the KKK or another white-supremacist group, and, as Jones notes, “Many Atlantans believe the child murderer is still at large.”
I have to admit, I knew very little about the Atlanta child murders before picking up this book. We talk about other serial killers constantly–Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer are the subjects of relatively new docu-series’ and biopics, Jack the Ripper has inspired dozens of films, including Hitchcock’s earliest suspense-heavy thriller, and what fascinates us more than the Manson family terrorizing the otherwise seemingly groovy California scene of the late 1960s? Generally speaking, true crime is more popular right now than ever.
From what I can tell, CBS aired a miniseries in 1985 based on the true events in Atlanta, a recent podcast called Atlanta Monster covered the events in depth, and it looks like Will Packer is working on a new miniseries, although I can’t quite figure out when and where it can be found. Of course, these are not the only mentions of the Atlanta child murders in the media but compared to Bundy, Dahmer, and Manson, there’s not a whole lot out there. Why is that? Probably because they’re not white, like Bundy’s victims, or because they weren’t horribly mutilated, like Dahmer’s victims. Our society has a tendency to care more about some (read: white) folks than others (read: not white), and I do think Dahmer, whose victims were primarily African-American, is an exception because we’re also intrigued by scandal and gore.
Now that I’ve said my piece, let’s get to the book. (Reminder: there will be spoilers.) The novel is split into three sections that are narrated from the perspective of three different children who go to the same school. The first section has a third-person limited narrator that follows a little girl named LaTasha. As we watch LaTasha’s day to day life (which includes the separation of her parents and the elementary school playground politics of popularity and male attention), the story of the murders begins to unfold on the nightly news. No one from LaTasha’s school has gone missing, at first.
Tasha catches the eye of an older boy named Jashante. She thinks he’s cute, but she also knows that he lives in a poor family and has been held back a few grades. Some of the other schoolgirls tease her for enjoying his attention, leaving Tasha confused and flustered. One day on the playground, Jashante asks Tasha, who he calls “Fancy Girl,” if she wants to be his partner in a race. The other girls begin to chant the age-old “sitting in a tree” rhyme, and Tasha ends up telling Jashante, “‘I hope you get asphyxiated,'” a threat that is rooted in the news reports and rumors surrounding the missing and murdered children (45).
The other children are horrified and whisper about the curse Tasha has placed on Jashante, all because he wanted to play with her. Tasha becomes an outcast, solidified when, shortly after, Jashante actually does go missing.
Latasha is probably my least favorite of the three narrators, but not because she said something mean and misguided to another student–kids do that kind of stuff all the time, although it doesn’t typically come true. Of course, Tasha didn’t mean to say what she said, and, more importantly, she did not curse Jashante. She is not a villain. She’s just a little girl. That being said, I can’t quite put my finger on why I’m less interested in her than our other two narrators. It really could come down to the fact that as the story unfolded, I became more invested in the characters, and she just happened to come first.
The second section is told from Rodney’s perspective and the voice and tense shift dramatically. This entire section is told through present-tense second-person narration, as in, “When you awaken the next morning dark clouds filled with water shroud the sky, obscuring the fading stars. The drumming of water on earth and brick and glass is hypnotic. Your father knocks twice on your closed bedroom door before you answer” (115).
Rodney, like Tasha, comes from a financially stable family. However, his father is aggressive and Rodney takes the brunt of his anger. At school, Rodney is quiet and reserved. He doesn’t have any friends until he tentatively begins talking with the least popular girl in school (and our third narrator AND my favorite character), Octavia, who gets teased regularly for being poor and darker-skinned than the other kids at school.
One of my favorite moments in Rodney’s section of the novel is when this friendship begins to bloom, and Octavia, teasingly, calls Rodney stupid, prompting this passage:
“No one has ever called you stupid before. You are pleased. You laugh and she joins you, covering her mouth with her hand, smearing spring colors on her dark cheeks” (123).
The second section comes to a devastating end after Rodney, having just been beaten by his father in front of his entire class, decides to run away. When a car pulls up next to him and the driver tells Rodney that he is a police officer, Rodney knows it isn’t true. Defeated by the fear of his father and the humiliation of his public punishment, Rodney gets in the car, which “vaults away in the direction opposite of home” (140).
The third section belongs to Octavia, known affectionately as Sweet Pea, and is the only section told through first-person narration. Octavia lives with her single mother who works night shifts so that she can be with Octavia during the day. She is poor but routinely notes that she doesn’t live in the projects, because the projects start across the street from her apartment building. She mourns the loss of Rodney but tries to keep the hope alive that because his body has not been located, there’s still a chance that he’ll come home.
I found myself smiling a lot while reading this final section. Octavia is a bright little girl, and her inner commentary is often biting, like when she thinks, “Mama need to stop bragging to everybody that I’m growing like a weed if she don’t want to buy me no new clothes” (157).
If you’ve ever read with the fear that a book is about to break your heart, you know how I felt in the long and extremely nerve-wracking scene where Octavia decides, in spite of the general understanding that kids should not be outside alone until the murderer has been caught, to go to the park by herself to think. As she swings, lost in thought, a man approaches, and Octavia becomes convinced that it is her estranged Uncle Kenny. Kenny used to live with Octavia and her mother, and Octavia blames herself for getting Kenny kicked out after she showed her mother the needles in Kenny’s bag. She tries to get this man’s attention and hurts herself pretty badly after hurdling off of the swing and onto the concrete.
This particular scene made me so nervous that when my fiance came into the room (very quietly, I might add) to see if I was still awake or asleep with my face in my book (it happens), I nearly screamed.
I suppose I would have tried to accept Octavia’s death with grace, but I’m really, really, really glad that she wound up okay. In other words, thank you, Tayari Jones, for not breaking my heart! And, more importantly, for writing such a thoughtful, provocative, important novel. Leaving Atlanta is a beautifully written novel that not only provides incite into and representation of black American childhood, but also calls attention to a national tragedy that doesn’t seem to be discussed enough. Whether you’re a fan of true crime fictionalizations, Southern literature, African-American literature, or just really love a good novel, I highly recommend Tayari Jones’ Leaving Atlanta.