It was the year that Atlanta police charged Wayne Williams with the murders of two black males, and my father announced he was going to be on TV. It was 1981; I was thirteen, a white kid, in a lily-white suburban neighborhood of brick ranches with flower beds in the yards and bluebirds on the telephone lines—a world away from Atlanta’s city limits where, in the last two years, twenty-eight people with skin darker than mine, children mostly, had been counted among the murdered. But Wayne Williams’s arrest meant I finally could play outside again.
In May, police had been staking out the Jackson Parkway Bridge when an officer heard a splash in the brown and sludgy waters of the Chattahoochee River below and spied a white station wagon disappearing into the night. Less than a mile down the road, they pulled the driver over. Williams, a twenty-three-year-old black man, told them he was a music promoter; he said he was on his way to audition a singer named Cheryl Johnson. Though Williams claimed she lived in the nearby town of Smyrna in Cobb County, and that their appointment had been longstanding, police found no record of any Cheryl Johnson.
Within a couple of days, two boys fishing south of the bridge found the naked body of Nathaniel Cater, twenty-seven, a homosexual prostitute and drug dealer, floating downriver. Using primarily fiber evidence gathered from Williams’s house and car, authorities would link Williams to Cater’s death, and later to Jimmy Ray Payne’s, twenty-one—both of whom had been labeled “retarded” and thereby were perceived as children; they thus qualified as victims of the Atlanta Child Murders. Williams was now behind bars, awaiting trial. It was autumn.
Even in the dim wattage of my eighth-grade brain, I found it strange that a music promoter who lived with his parents in Dixie Hills and a nonexistent woman named Cheryl Johnson, a singer with no voice, somehow managed to gain more fame and notoriety than anyone I personally knew. But tonight, at eleven o’clock, my father would be changing all that.
When Dad told us he’d be on the late news, Mom and I knew the murders and Dad’s appearance were unrelated. But he was secretive about exactly why he was newsworthy. What was the story? Unless they turned violent, unless they’d gone postal, postmen did not appear on the evening news. Still, I imagined whatever acts of heroism a boy raised on Starsky and Hutch, Six Million Dollar Man, and Kung Fu could conjure. I pictured Dad coming upon a house afire, dropping his mail sack to the sidewalk and sprinting through a blazing door to rescue a baby from rising flames. I saw him wrestling a thief to the ground. I envisioned him pulling a woman from the wreckage of her car right before it exploded.
But when asked which of these scenarios had involved him, Dad was not forthcoming. He seemed to relish the suspense. That October night, standing in our kitchen in his standard-issue uniform, he only grinned and propped his fists on his hips and stood with his shoes wide apart. “You’ll just have to wait to find out,” he said.