‘Leaving Atlanta’ is a novel based on one of Atlanta’s darkest moments–the Atlanta child murders. The Atlanta child murders began in the summer of 1979 when the bodies of two adolescent African American bodies were found in the city of Atlanta. Lasting for two years, it is believed than an additional 20 African American children were also murdered. During June 1981, 23 years old Wayne Williams was charged with the murders of the children and two adults as well. Author Tayari Jones retells the horrors of that time, emphasizing the fear that terrorized the city’s citizens. Even more gripping than the memories that emerge in readers’ minds, is the perspective through which Jones writes. Divided into three parts, the novel describes the tragedies through the eyes, thoughts and minds of three children. Each child describes the effects the child murders had on them, their daily routines, friendships, and lives. The first part of the novel is told through the perspective of Tasha Baxter. The second story focuses on Rodney Green and the third is centered on Octavia Harrison. Despite the different issues that are presented in the individual stories, each story tells is chilling, and gripping. Each story describes a world where children’s lives are interrupted, a world where children are thrust into an adult world.
The first part of ‘Leaving Atlanta’ is entitled “Magic Words.” Tasha Baxter is an ordinary fifth grader. She is not popular, but she is not unpopular. She is not the best at sports, but she does participate. Tasha does however, desire to fit in with the “cool crowd.” Her story, like all the children’s stories deals with social issues such as fitting in, and being accepted.
Family is also an element of Tasha’s story. In fact, it is the separation of her parents that leads to some of the ridicule she deals with at school. Upon hearing of the child murders happening, her father however, decides to return home to protect his children. The return of Tasha’s father seems to help turn her life right side up. She gains a bit of popularity, and acquires some new friends. One unexpected friend she gain is JaShante. Easily labeled as a “project kid,” Tasha’s friendship with JaShante is not approved of by her “friends” or her father. Later in the story, it is realized that Jashante is missing; his story is on the news, his mother is distraught. The entire school is devastated. Tasha is never quite the same.
“JaShante was out there too, but the night was huge. She saw one star. Tasha closed her eyes but didn’t wish.
“Tasha,” DeShaun said sleepily, “what’s the magic word?”
“Huh?” Tasha said, distracted.
“Remember, you said that there was a magic word to keep you safe.”
“Oh, that magic word,” Tasha said, as if there were only one….
“Shaun,” Tasha said, “there’s no such thing as a magic word.”
The second part of ‘Leaving Atlanta’ is titled “A Direction Opposite of Home.” Rodney Green is the quiet child. His words are few; his friends are fewer. His life is like a collection of reactions to all that happens to him. His family is together, yet detached from one another. He almost embodies the characterization of an invisible man, present but not seen, speaking but not heard. As Tasha’s story focuses on safety, Rodney’s focuses on authority and choice. Unlike JaShante, Rodney chooses to to get into the police car in the opposite direction of home.
“A blue sedan pulls up beside you. ‘Excuse me,’ says the driver, lowering the passenger-side window. ‘I’m a police office. There has been a bank robbery in this area. We need to get all the civilians off the street.’
…’You’re not a real policeman.’
‘What did I just say? Hurry up kid, and get in the car. I don’t have all day.’ He produces a U-shaped piece of metal. You run your finger across the metal. It is as smooth as chocolate and fake as a glass eye.’
…”Which way are you going?” He points downtown. Against the overcast sky, you make out the lights rimming Peachtree Plaza Hotel. When you enter the car, you press your eyelids against your eyes until you see only dancing spots the color of marigolds. The door shuts and the sedan vaults away in the direction opposite of home.”
Leaving in a car
The third story is titled “Sweet Pea.” Octavia Harrison is the social outcast of the school. She is dark skinned, has natural–her classmates call it nappy–hair, and lives directly across the street from the projects. Rudely called “Watusi,” by her classmates, Octavia is observant, strong, and intelligent. Raised by a single mother, life isn’t easy, but Octavia has learned how to survive. She bravely befriends Rodney who more or less does not really know whether to accept or reject her offer of friendship. Her family dynamics are complicated to say the least, but she despite it all, she loves her mother; her mother lover her too. It is love, and poverty that interrupts Octavia’s world as the child murders continue to take place.
‘”I love you,” she said. But she lies. Her words are like a chocolate mint, soft and delicious, melting on my tongue; but I can’t swallow it. I wiggled out of her grip.
“Taxi be here in a minute.” …I’ll be missing my mama for the rest of my life.’