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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mothers cry out for justice as Mindhunter introduces the Atlanta Child Murders

Illustration for article titled Mothers cry out for justice as Mindhunter introduces the Atlanta Child Murders
Photo: Netflix

“Save your promises, Agent Ford.”

In true-crime circles, the concept of the “less dead” has been gaining traction as the genre slowly, awkwardly attempts to move into something a little more socially conscious than Nancy Grace and her fixation on pretty blonde white girls from the suburbs. (Seriously, she’s the worst.) Basically, the idea is that historically, in the eyes of the media and law enforcement, some deaths—mainly white and/or wealthy ones—matter more than others. And sex workers, LGBTQ people, and people of color are at the bottom of the list in terms of public sympathy and concern. The third episode of Mindhunter season two introduces a case study in how this principle operates, as Holden Ford gets a plea from three Black mothers to investigate a series murders in their community that local politicians and law enforcement prefer to pretend doesn’t exist.


The Atlanta depicted in this episode reminds me a bit of my home of Chicago: Suspicious of outsiders and full of justifications for how the city’s corrupt and ineffective government is “just the way things are.” Ford, who’s a real babe in the woods this season on all matters save for serial homicide, naturally has no idea about all of this when he arrives in the city for what seems to be a routine pair of interviews with two of the names on Carr’s board. So routine, in fact, that Tench feels comfortable sending Ford to Atlanta by himself, while he stays home to poke around at the scene of the neighborhood murder that has Nancy so shaken up. In interviews, ex-FBI agents sometimes talk about how they’re trained to compartmentalize their work from the rest of their lives in order to stay sane, and that was in the front of my mind in the contrast between Tench and his wife’s demeanors in this episode. Clearly, based on her (normal, human) reaction to the news, they never, ever discuss his work. That’s before Tench—and, eventually, everyone else—finds out that the victim was a two-year-old boy.

The show is setting up a contrast between the response to the death of one child in Tench’s white neighborhood and the deaths of many children in the Black neighborhoods of Atlanta: One is investigated swiftly and thoroughly. The others are dismissed, with victims written off as “runaways” no matter the evidence to the contrary. Overall, there seems to be a certain amount of horror the city of Atlanta (and America as a whole) is willing to ignore, as long as that horror happens to Black children. This systematic institutional neglect necessitates community organizing, like the adults escorting children home we see towards the beginning of the episode, or the impressively thorough dossier presented to Ford by mothers Camille Bell (June Carryl), Venus Taylor (Andrene Ward-Hammond), and Willie Mae Mathis (Crystal Lee Brown), all of whose children are dead or missing. Everyone else either doesn’t care or doesn’t want to get involved—even Black FBI agent Jim Barney (Albert Jones) warns Ford against wading into this politically charged case—so they must protect and fight for their own. It seems now, however, they have a powerful ally, thanks to savvy hotel clerk Tanya Clifton (Sierra McClain) and her trusty beat-up car. (Did Ford really think she was asking him out? Like, on a date?)

That’s some heavy stuff, so it’s surprising how funny this episode is in its interrogation scenes. William Pierce, Jr. (Michael Filipowich) and, to a lesser extent, William Henry Hance (Corey Allen) are played for laughs, with the chaw-chomping Pierce coming off like an idiot trying to sound smart and Hance seeming to enjoy confusing the agents with circular logic, “like a donut.” Both of these depictions are rooted in reality: Pierce, whose career as a serial killer began when he was paroled in 1970 against his psychiatrist’s recommendations, is described as having an IQ that “barely broke 70,” thus his misuse of 25-cent words and narcissistic defensiveness about his intelligence. (He killed nine before finally being convicted for the murder of Peggy Cuttino, the daughter of a South Carolina state senator.) Hance, meanwhile, kept investigators guessing about his mental state up until his execution in 1994—an execution that was alleged to have been ordered by a racially biased jury.

Overall, I like this use of Ford’s guilelessness better than having him have spooky mind powers, something that hasn’t been as bad (so far) as I feared it would be based on the first episode. Barney also proves himself to be a capable interrogator, and a worthy match for Ford. David Fincher, who directed this episode—his third of three—pulls off the shifting tones better than most could: I got an authentically creepy Se7en vibe from the scene of Tench and Detective Spencer standing over the outline of a child’s body in the basement of that house, and Filipowich’s delivery of the line “the chocolate and the smooth, all in one treat!” made me laugh out loud for the first time ... maybe ever? ... on this show. But I will admit that, although they both worked for me separately, the tonal shift between the comedic scenes and the dramatic scenes in this episode gave me a bit of whiplash.

Stray Observations

  • The best resource I personally know for more information on the Atlanta Child Murders comes from Atlanta itself, in the form of Tenderfoot TV’s Atlanta Monster podcast series. The series spends more time on the aftermath of the crimes—and Wayne Williams, the man eventually convicted for them—than the early days depicted in this episode of Mindhunter. But there’s still plenty of illuminating context, particularly in the first few episodes.
  • Tench’s son Brian wetting the bed is one of the three warning signs of the controversial “Macdonald Triad,” a popular but scientifically unproven theory that says that children who 1) wet the bed, 2) are cruel to animals, and 3) start fires go on to exhibit predatory, violent behavior as adults. John Douglas, Robert Ressler, and Dr. Ann Burgess, the real-life inspirations for our core Mindhunter trio, are (or were, in Ressler’s case) all big proponents.
  • I liked McClain’s performance in this episode a lot, as well as Jonathan Groff’s. It must be fun to get to take the piss out of a super-serious character like Ford.
  • Speaking of, what kind of movies do you think Ford likes? I’m picturing him alone, sitting motionless in his suit, at a screening of Smokey And The Bandit.
  • Being a square FBI guy, he probably also means The Knack when he says he likes “New Wave” music. I could see him being a Blondie fan, though.
  • Gregg quoting Aristotle and Plato is a real “Jerry’s Painting” moment, to continue the Parks And Rec metaphor from our episode one recap.
  • I appreciated Tench’s lack of patience for rumors of occult activity in his neighborhood. That kind of crap is how we got the Satanic Panic.
  • It’s Saturday, and your faithful recapper has some things to do that don’t involve binge-watching TV. (Wild, I know.) So this is your discussion thread for today. Be nice, and please don’t spoil the whole season for people who are pacing themselves. I’ll be back to talk about episodes four and five tomorrow, with recaps going up twice a day through Tuesday.
  • In the meantime, here’s a nice long interview with Douglas and Burgess about criminal profiling and Mindhunter that took place at Boston College last year.