I was online today and someone asked on their Facebook timeline why people weren’t talking about the show “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children” being featured on HBO. There were a plethora of answers ranging from “I don’t have access to HBO” to “The masses aren’t discussing this show because the children were Black and you know they don’t value us”. The latter would have been my answer considering there are large swaths of America that don’t even know that the Black Missing and Murdered Children of Atlanta in the early 1980s is an actual thing; while at the same time a single White JonBenet Ramsey gets a movie reboot or pop culture reset every 75 to 90 days. Hyperbole, but you see what I’m getting at. However, there’s a larger reason as to why I haven’t watched this HBO presentation or the few others that have come out over the years, the reason being is that I was nearly one of those kids and I don’t necessarily want the reminder.
I was young at the time, around seven and a half, young enough to be mildly oblivious of what was happening but aware enough to know that things were nowhere close to normal. Parents were on edge, paranoid in a lot of cases but that’s to be expected when little brown boys and girls were being snatched off the streets mere miles from their own doorsteps. You played in front of the house if you got to go out at all. If you were out in public you stayed to the immediate left or right of your parent and knew better than to stray an inch further. Trips to the candy lady at the top of the street required every child on the street to go together in a pack while one, two, or all the adults stood at the top of their driveways and kept watch. Police officers went to the neighborhood public schools that my friends went to and discussed how to stay safe when out at play. I can’t remember any such presentations at the private Catholic school that I attended, there were only four Black kids in my class so it may not have been wholly necessary for such an effort. But even without the Officer Friendly visit to my classroom we knew to be careful because our parents hovered, we heard the telephone conversations our parents had with their friends, we overheard the TV news through the closed door when they tried to protect some semblance of our childhood normalcy. We knew something was wrong.
“Hey kid, come over here a second.” A dark colored sedan had pulled in front of my yard where I was playing ball with a friend, pretending to catch, throw, and hit like our favorite Atlanta Braves. His hair was dark and cut into a short cropped afro, his skin was a little darker than my own, he could have been a friend of my parents or one of the adults at church. He smiled and asked, “Do you know how to get to Columbia Mall?” Even then I thought it was a strange question since Columbia Mall was barely a mile away. Two turns would have gotten him there from where the question was raised. I stepped to the end of the driveway to see if I could recognize him. Standing on the curb I was able to see another person sitting in the passenger seat who didn’t look in my direction, his eyes stayed forward toward the top of the street where the candylady lived. My friend and I stepped into the street a little closer to the car and began to give him directions. I started in excitedly like I did in school when I knew the answer to a question instructing him to go up the street and make a left and a quick right, then he cut me off laughing saying, “It’s easier if you just get in and show me.”
I remember saying “But it’s easy though!”, my friend agreed nodding, “You go left, right and right and then go ‘til you get there.” I’d been to that mall with my parents enough to give me the confidence to consider it an easy trip. I could see a girl in the back seat, she might have been a little older than me but not by much. I remember our eyes catching briefly, I think I remember ponytails and barrettes but I can’t be sure. I do know she was brown like me though, a soft chocolate complexion with big brown eyes. His voice brought my attention back to him “You can just get in, show me how to get there and then I’ll bring you right back here.” I remember thinking that he must have been dumb but I actually relented and said, “Okay…let me go ask first.” The driver door clicked open and he called out “Wait, we can just go real quick…” but I was already running to my front door with my friend to ask my Mom if I could help a stranger. Before my friend and I even got to the door we heard the car skid off. We both turned and the car was already out of sight up the street. Blissfully ignorant, we went right back to the yard to finish pretending we were Gene Garber throwing side armed sliders and Dale Murphy hitting home runs to the delight of our imaginary fans. It wasn’t until years later that I realized what that was, what that could have been; that my friend, or me, or the both of us could have made that long list of children on that afternoon and quite frankly it did a real retroactive scare job on me. I never mentioned it out loud for years. I didn’t tell my parents until I was good and grown. My friend and I are obviously well into adulthood now and we’ve never spoken of it and, though I’ve been tempted to, I doubt we ever will broach the subject. I’m good with that.
After a brief back and forth on my friend’s Facebook page about the HBO program I went to my own Facebook page and shared a few feelings about why I hadn’t watched and surprisingly, I wasn’t alone. Many of my friends who are my age or close simply can’t bring themselves to watch because we all went through those summers, some have a story like mine, or know of a friend that has a story like that or, worse, know of someone at our school or a friend’s school, or from the neighborhood that was taken. And we’re all commenting on this post like, “Nope, I ain’t watching it”; it was kind of like a brown skinned version of the movie “It” where the trauma one thought was done in childhood comes back to haunt in strange ways years later. I was happy to know that I wasn’t alone in my feelings about not pressing play on the show, but troubled that memory hadn’t been quite laid to rest.
I’m back in my childhood home now and sometimes try to remember details about that man in that car but all I can see is his complexion and his neatly cut afro. Maybe there’s something that won’t let me remember and I believe I’m cool with that. Oftentimes when I go to the mailbox or take out the trash I’ll stand there in that spot where it all could have come to an end for me and thank God that guy didn’t just snatch me up as he could have easily done, and thank Him additionally for giving me the good common sense to ask if I could help someone even if I didn’t have the good common sense to follow Kid Rule #1 and not talk to a stranger. Will I eventually watch the program? Probably. As this infamous slice of American history has been swept under the rug for the most part, I’m for anything that helps to bring this time in Atlanta’s history to the forefront to honor those lost kids and their families that I feel still don’t have justice for their loved ones, loved ones that quite possibly include the little girl with the big brown eyes in the back seat of that car that afternoon.
~ Visit The Mind of the Last Atlanta Native ~