The film begins with a black-and-white collage of the 29 African Americans, mostly children, "officially" identified as the victims of a serial killer. The killings occur at a tense time in Atlanta's politics, a narrator breathlessly informs us: "Atlanta, anxious to refashion its image from heart of the Confederacy to jewel of the New South, becomes a seething cauldron of panic, fear and rage." That cauldron has overheated the script, which gives us a shadowy figure declaring, "That city's about one stumble away from a total meltdown!"
The case is effectively closed with Wayne Williams' murder convictions in 1982, but the film's narrative leaps forward to 1985 (the year of Abby Mann's "Atlanta Child Murders" TV miniseries, which goes unmentioned). Ron Larson (Gregory Hines), editor of Spin magazine, and ace reporter Pat Laughlin (Jim Belushi) are drawn to the story by a group of mothers of murdered children who doubt Williams' culpability and accuse the Special Task Force of incompetence and even misidentifying bodies. As much as one sympathizes with the grieving parents, they're condescendingly drawn here as poor-but-proud stereotypes.
Larson and Laughlin follow a lead that vaguely alludes to "a child sex-for-hire ring involving high-ranking city officials," including the mayor's office, but the idea never emerges as more than rumor. A police officer outlines the goofs and inter-departmental rivalries that plagued the Task Force, in a scene that happens to take place at a strip club (which, granted, were an Atlanta claim to fame in the early 1980s).
Ultimately Spin's answer to Woodward and Bernstein find a Deep Throat in ex-investigator Aubrey Melton (Sean McCann), who provides them with files from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that describe a secret probe of KKK involvement in the killings. The film doesn't argue that Wayne Williams never killed anyone, but it does suggest he's a scapegoat for all the murders.
Who Killed Atlanta's Children? offers a case study of the difficulties inherent in dramatizing true events. Hines' "Ron Larson" is based on the film's producer, Rudy Langlais, so even if a hero has a changed name, can we accept any of the film's information at face value? The film makes little distinction between "possible truths," documented facts and scenes invented for dramatic reasons. An imagined meeting of black radicals claiming responsibility for the killings to advance a social agenda gets equal weight as a more plausible gathering of bigots riling themselves up for a potential "race war."
Rather than give the film structure and dramatic momentum, the plot of Larson and Laughlin's reportage falls into a lazy depiction of mismatched partners, alternately bonding and bitching at each other. Hines' owlish understatement lends Who Killed Atlanta's Children? a smidgen of sensitivity, which Belushi's blundering, regular-guy presence can't help but dissipate. When Laughlin confesses to a tragedy in his past while standing in front of a rain-drenched window, the film turns inadvertently preposterous, then tops it with a dream scene when the murdered children enter his hotel room. It's a potentially effective moment made tasteless and ridiculous by giving the victims glowing, silver eyes, like the kids from Village of the Damned.
That's not to downplay the tragedy of the killings themselves, and the film's most genuinely effective moments are the quickly edited scenes (some takes from WSB-TV footage) of bodies being discovered. As a teenager living in Atlanta at the time, I vividly remember the dread of the news and the horror whenever another body was discovered. But though "the city too busy to hate" may be a slogan based on wishful thinking, the Showtime movie makes Atlanta of the time look like an American Beirut, rife with racist klaverns and African-American "bat patrols" arming themselves to the teeth with automatic weapons.
Only in the latter third does the story rise above its own faults, as Melton assembles evidence against a Klansman (played by Shawn Doyle) and his suspicious family, only to see the GBI investigation shut down by a shadowy agent (Aiden Devine). The argument against Klansmen seems too circumstantial to be the case's magic bullet, but it makes one wonder how the investigation was handled.
Viewers of Who Killed Atlanta's Children? who can pay attention for the duration will probably share the feelings of the reporters early on, reluctant to accept unsubstantiated theories, yet suspicious that there's more to the case than the official version. Though it achieves its goal by raising questions in the minds of the audience, Who Killed Atlanta's Children? often relies on the proof of the paranoid, which finds the lack of evidence to be itself evidence of a cover-up.