When Home Is 'No Place Safe'
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
In the summer of 1979, Atlanta kids were doing what kids do - playing outside, fighting, flirting, trying to round up a little money with odd jobs, but then two boys were found dead along a wooded road. That was just the start of a killing spree. Over the course of two years, 29 black children, mostly boys, were murdered.
Writer Kim Reid was a teenager when the terror began and her mother was a detective who got assigned to the case. In her book, "No Place Safe: A Family Memoir," Kim writes about the effects of the murders on her city, her family and herself.
Kim, thanks for joining us.
Ms. KIM REID (Author, "No Place Safe: A Family Memoir"): Hello. Thank you.
CHIDEYA: So your book really reads like a novel. It's an incredible story. What made you decide to write it and why now?
Ms. REID: Well, I grew up wanting to be a writer. I wanted to tell a story because I thought it was important to my family as well as Atlanta's history. But I didn't really act on it until a few years ago. I was reading an excerpt from a book review and it portrayed the cops on a case as insensitive, and while it was beautifully written and captured the emotions of fear at the time, I thought it painted too broad strokes about the cops not really caring about solving this case, because I knew a very different story. My mother not only wanted to solve it, but she was obsessed with the case, so I wanted to tell that story.
CHIDEYA: Now, your mother was the first black female crime investigator for the Fulton County DA's Office. You write a lot about just how much this took out of her. Tell me a little bit about her, how she worked on the case, and what kind of emotional cost she had to pay.
Ms. REID: Well, I write a little bit about how - I saw her as two people - my mother and also this cop and it helped me to deal with the fact that she was out there in the streets, not just on this case, but other cases. But she's a tough woman - still is a tough woman, no longer a cop, but I think, you know, being a single mother, she had to go through a lot of things with keeping us fed and keeping the rent paid.
But she was also kind and she saw in these kids, in having to go to talk to mothers that their children have been found. I think she - it brought her home to us, her own kids. And so she was really consumed with finding out who the killer was in this case.
CHIDEYA: What did it do to you? I mean, first of all, on a practical level, you had to spend a lot of time taking care of your sister, but also, were you afraid? Were you afraid for your mother, for yourself, for your neighborhood?
Ms. REID: All of that. I think the biggest thing it had for me and probably other children in Atlanta at the time was you lost a little bit of your childhood. I lost some of that being the oldest with a single parent. But the other was the fear of you couldn't go down the street and play basketball after dark, the panic your parents would feel if you got home just a few minutes late because they didn't know if you'd been snatched. And, you know, children's conversations, I think, changed because we talk about who went missing last and had there been another body found.
CHIDEYA: At the same time, you were breaking ground going to a mostly white school where things weren't always pleasant. And you had a conversation with your grandmother about going to a white neighborhood, whether or not you felt safer there. Tell me about that conversation and did it hurt you at the time.
Ms. REID: It did hurt. Well, the school I went to - I left - it was my first time dealing with this investigation. Also, it coincided with my first time leaving my black neighborhood and going to a mostly white and a mostly white school. I think black folks made up about 1 percent of the school there.
And it was a difficult time because I think in the first year of the investigation or the murders, people really didn't see it. Outside of the inner city, people didn't see it as their problem. And so that was one thing, dealing with some of the insensitivity. Also just dealing with in your face racism, that was the first time I had to deal with that.
And the conversation with my grandmother was about my fear that in trying to fit in, I was assimilating and losing who I was.
CHIDEYA: What about race in the city? There were black families, who said, oh it couldn't have been a black man. There were cries of racism against the police force. How tense were things?
Ms. REID: Oh I think, especially in the first year, it was pretty tense and it was pretty polarizing. I thought, you know, I think in the black community, we automatically thought it had had been racial because all the victims were black children. And I think - I don't believe the whole community joined in - black and white - until the bodies were found in white neighborhoods. That's my opinion of it.
But initially, the children were coming from mostly black neighborhoods and they were being found in black neighborhoods. But then the killer began leaving bodies outside in the suburbs. And I think that's when the community became less polarized.
CHIDEYA: Wayne Williams, arrested, convicted - there are still some people including some officials who think that he is not the killer. What do you think?
Ms. REID: Well, I would agree, but you know, my information is secondhand. But you know, I think one thing people don't realize is there were 29 official victims on the list - on the official list.
Wayne Williams was only tried for two of those and convicted for two of those. And those two were actually adults. They weren't children. So a lot of people think, first of all, those adults shouldn't have been put on the list with the children.
And I know my mother believes he did the two because she was part of the prosecution team that convicted him. But she never believed that he did all of the murders. And her partner at the time, he has been vocal in saying he didn't believe he - that Williams did any of the murders.
CHIDEYA: Quickly, what are you working on next?
Ms. REID: A novel and I'm enjoying the freedom of not staying true to the facts. It's nice to know how a story begins and how it ends, but I'm really enjoying writing fiction. But I still - it's still family drama and, you know, my husband worked for a police department, my mother was a cop, my stepfather was a - is a criminal lawyer and so I'm still really interested in crime and the emotions it drives people to do crimes, so.
CHIDEYA: Well, Kim, thanks so much.
Ms. REID: Thank you for having me.
CHIDEYA: Kim Reid's book is called "No Place Safe: A Family Memoir," and she joined us from member station KUVO in Denver, Colorado.
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