Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones
Between 1979-1981 a series of child murders haunted the city of Atlanta, Georgia resulting in the death of 29 children – mostly boys, though all African American.
In her debut fictional novel, Tayari Jones recounts this slice of history from the perspective of school-age children, and her decision to do so is quite compelling.
Leaving Atlanta is a coming-of-age story set in 1979 that follows the everyday lives of three pubescents Atlantans. Latasha Baxter is a middle schooler who struggles with the pressure of her parent’s separation and the social structure of her school.
Rodney Green is a fifth-grade class nerd at Oglethorpe Elementary who fears his own father more than the threat of a predator targeting young black boys.
Octavia Fuller is a fifth-grader who has been ostracized in school for her dark complexion and proximity to the projects.
Each of their stories demonstrates the highs and lows of life for schoolchildren with the threat of a child serial killer looming in the background. They not only feared for their own safety but they also dealt with the reality of their friends and classmates meeting the unfortunate fate.
Jones’s decision to tell this story through the lens of children is what makes this book superior! She was nine years old when “The Atlanta Child Murders” began and she attended Oglethorpe Elementary, the same school depicted in the novel, at which two of her classmates were among those who disappeared.
The level of ignorance and innocence brought by the main characters of this novel make this horrific story more tolerable because of the way Jones colors the tragedy with the simplicity of childhood.
She forces us to remember the children who really experienced it — those who did not survive, and those who did. Leaving Atlanta wasn’t just a story worth telling for Jones…it was her story to tell.
One major theme explored in this novel is Black family structures, particularly the role of Black fathers. Latasha and Rodney both come from a two-parent household, but when Latasha’s parents’ divorce is interrupted by the disappearing children, they are compelled to prioritize the safety of their children.
Rodney’s father, although very present in his life is also abusive and demeaning to Rodney making him vulnerable to the predator targeting young black boys.
On the contrary, Octavia is the only child of a single mother who works the graveyard shift, which means she is left to fend for herself most nights.
Although her father eventually makes an appearance, the time she spent without the security of a father exposed her to potential danger and forced her to advocate for her own personal safety.
As of today, the murders of these children have remained unsolved although they have been attributed to an Atlanta native, Wayne Williams who is currently serving two consecutive life sentences for unrelated charges.
Williams has continued to assert his innocence and his attempt to appeal his sentence in the courts has led to the discovery of new evidence suggesting the potential involvement of the Ku Klux Klan.
In 2019, former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Police Chief Erika Shields reopened the case in an attempt to finally get some closure.
Leaving Atlanta is important because it adds perspective to the national narrative that is still developing.
It’s a beautiful yet heartbreaking depiction of a moment in history where Black children were deprived of the security of their neighborhoods, which is something that still exists today.
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