At its core, Mindhunter is a show about studying. The Netflix drama follows the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit as agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and psychologist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) try to track killers by studying how murderers think. It’s like The Silence of the Lambs, but based on true stories, as Mindhunter’s source material is a 1995 memoir from a retired FBI agent, and the show plunks its characters in the middle of famous real-life crimes.
In its upcoming second season, Mindhunter will focus on a crime spree known as the Atlanta child murders, in which at least 25 black children, as well as a number of adults, were killed from 1979 to 1981. The show is also expected to introduce Charles Manson as a character.
Mindhunter is fictional, but because this show is so focused on people who do their homework, it’s only right to study up for its second season. Here’s our syllabus:
WABE’s “The Atlanta Child Murders Through the Eyes of People Who Reported on It” and The New York Times’s “Who Killed Atlanta’s Children?”
From 1979 to 1981, dozens of black children and teenagers were abducted and murdered in Atlanta. There was no discernible pattern to the crimes—some victims disappeared from their homes, while others were last seen running errands or playing outside; the victims were also different ages and included both boys and girls. The violence, and the sheer lack of answers, left the city terrorized.
In 1981, a man named Wayne Williams was arrested and convicted of killing two people who were slain during the spree. Williams, a low-level talent scout at the time of his arrest, was widely acknowledged as the perpetrator of the spree—however, the two people he was found guilty of killing were adults, and he was never brought to trial for any of the other deaths. Naturally, then, intrigue has lingered around the killings—which technically remain unsolved—and in 2019, the investigation was officially reopened.
To learn the basic facts about the Atlanta child murders and why people are still investigating and thinking about them today, check out WABE’s retrospective from July, “The Atlanta Child Murders Through the Eyes of People Who Reported on It.” And for even more, there’s reporter Audra Burch’s fantastic, thorough New York Times story from this past spring about the many questions people still have about the crimes.
“The Killings in Atlanta,” From Martin Amis’s The Moronic Inferno
British writer Martin Amis also explored the crime’s cultural context for a 1981 magazine piece in The Observer, which was then collected in his 1986 book The Moronic Inferno. Amis touches on how futile much of the investigative efforts felt to the residents of the city. “The FBI were in Atlanta by this stage, and the Missing Persons Bureau (originally with a staff of four) had been belatedly expanded into a thirty-seven-member Task Force, working in the showrooms of the old Leader Lincoln-Mercury dealership in the centre of town,” Amis wrote. “A reward of $100,000 was established. ‘That ought to smoke them out’ was the general view. ‘That’ll shake the trees.’ But it didn’t.”
James Baldwin’s The Evidence of Things Not Seen
At the start of the 1980s, Baldwin came back to America from France to report on the Atlanta child murders for Playboy. He ended up writing a book, one that questions whether Wayne Williams was guilty, and to what degree he was guilty, and zooms out to contemplate racism, poverty, masculinity, capitalism, and the concept of the American dream. The Evidence of Things Not Seen is more of a sermon than a work of reportage, but what it lacks in details about the case it makes up for in prescient riffs on the justice system and spectacle. “Atlanta became, for a season, a kind of grotesque Disneyland,” Baldwin wrote.
Gladys Knight & the Pips, “Forever Yesterday (for the Children)”
Gladys Knight & the Pips recorded a song about the Atlanta child murders in 1981 as a way to memorialize the victims. As much as I love Gladys Knight, to be absolutely honest with you, the song is a bit spooky—the music sounds like a riff on a carousel, and it’s very obviously a ditty about dead kids. But … listen to it anyway?
Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam
Mindhunter is also expected to touch on the “Son of Sam” murders, which began during the summer of 1976 in New York City. It’s not clear exactly how—or how deeply—the next season will delve into this spate of killings, but it’s still a good excuse to watch Spike Lee’s 1999 film Summer of Sam, set during that time period. The movie is about how the fear and paranoia caused by mass murder can infect a neighborhood—and, like Mindhunter, it’s a detail-filled period piece intent on capturing mood above all. It’s worth watching for its recreation of the New York blackout alone, although Adrien Brody’s performance is also terrific.
Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember Manson
As Charles Manson will be a character on Mindhunter this season, we recommend listening to Karina Longworth’s excellent podcast You Must Remember Manson, a spinoff of her equally excellent Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This. There are so many different options for learning about the Manson family, but Longworth provides so much context about the culture that Manson thrived in that it sets her account apart, folding ancillary celebrity figures like Doris Day and filmmaker Kenneth Anger into the narrative to emphasize how entwined the Manson story is with the culture of Hollywood itself.
Tom O’Neill’s Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties
Mindhunter is all about the government intersecting with serial killers. This is also the subject of journalist Tom O’Neill’s long-gestating new book, Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. O’Neill began reporting a magazine story about Manson decades ago, extending his deadline for so long that the magazine that had assigned him the story went out of business before he’d finished. O’Neill’s book lays out an argument that the official story about Charles Manson is not accurate, that the con man may have had ties to the CIA, and that prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi had built his case against Manson around a lie. It’s a fascinating, labyrinthine dip into conspiracy that pairs well with Mindhunter.
Rachel Monroe’s Savage Appetites
Savage Appetites is a book for true crime fans who want to understand why they are so obsessed with true crime, which means it’s exactly the sort of book that the Mindhunter characters would gravitate toward. Journalist Rachel Monroe deftly interrogates true crime tropes and her own fixation on the genre in this collection of reported essays, which includes a chapter on the victims of Charles Manson. It comes out on August 20, just in time to alternate between watching a Mindhunter episode and reading a chapter that’ll make you think about why you’re binge-watching.
Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood
Tarantino’s most recent film also features Manson as a supporting character, and guess what: He’s played by Damon Herriman, the same actor cast in the role on Mindhunter. Time to compare and contrast! Despite the casting overlap, though, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood balances menace with whimsy, which means it might be the perfect thing to watch after you’ve finished the first season of Mindhunter but before the second comes out. That way you can balance the horrors of reality with the promise of fiction—all before diving back into the former again.