Book Review: Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones (With Spoilers)

This book takes place between the years of 1979 to 1981 in Atlanta, Georgia. During these two years, more than two dozen children disappeared and were gruesomely murdered. In 1982, Wayne Williams was convicted of killing two adult men and was sentenced to life in prison, however, prosecutors believe that he was responsible for the murders of 23 of the 29 children who went missing and disappeared. Williams, who was 23 years old at the time of the last murder, was never tried or convicted for any of the murders that were attributed to him. All the children who were murdered, or missing were between the ages of 9 to 17.

This story is told through the eyes of 3, fifth-grade students during the times of the Atlanta Child Murders. The book is divided into three parts all told from different perspectives. The first was Tasha, second was Rodney and third was Octavia. Tasha is a young lady, who at the beginning of the story, lived with both of her parents. Suddenly her parents “separated,” and as the murders being to occur in her community, her father moves back into the home. She is the oldest in her family and her family system was very open for communication. Tasha is somewhat of a busy body and is trying to find who she is within the social context of her fifth-grade classroom. Rodney lives with both his parents, but his father is a brute and very stern with him. He’s a very timid and shy – and does not have very many friends. He keeps to himself and begins stealing from the local store, in my opinion, as a way to affirm that he is invisible. Rodney befriends Octavia towards the end of his section of the book, and she has her own chapter. Octavia is a young girl growing up across the street from the “projects.” She lives with her mother, while her father lives in South Carolina as a professor at a university who is remarried. Octavia’s mother works the night shift and leaves Octavia, or “Sweet Pea,” at home alone at night, where she watches the news alone.

What are the most pressing issues in the book? 

I believe that the most pressing issue in this book is not the Atlanta Child Murders, but rather how the community reacts to these murders. I believe that this book put a very interesting spin on these murders. I really think that the way Ms. Jones focuses on these children and their experiences trying to gain acceptance in their worlds, even as a very ominous threat scares everyone.

What principals/characters did you agree or disagree with?

I did not agree with how Rodney’s father treated him. I felt real angry towards that man, and I could not imagine trying to grow and develop under the tyranny that was Rodney’s father. The man was not only harsh, but cruel towards his son. On one hand, I believe that his father was trying to do his best and raise his son to be a “real man,” but I think he could’ve went about it a different manner. I felt like his harsh parenting style did not fit his shy and timid son. I, however, agreed with “Sweat Pea’s” mother sending her to South Carolina. While the murders were not of little girls I think it was appropriate to try and give your daughter a better life. I felt like it was extremely hard for her mother to do, but the right thing to do.

What other things might the author have researched or considered?

I think the author should’ve went more into Octavia’s relationship with Kenny, or provide a little more detail. I would’ve been interested to know how that played out in Octavia’s life, especially since during these times sexual abuse from family members was rather common. Maybe not in a way to take away from the murders, but to just provide a little more context to the complexities that make up her personality.

What worked well for you?

In my opinion, what worked the best was the different forms of storytelling that was throughout the book. I believe that shifting the focus from child to child was important because each child’s perception of the world is different. No child is the same, and she really chose the viewpoint well for each child. For example, Tasha couldn’t be in first person, because she would take over the entire book, and Rodney couldn’t be in first person either, because he doesn’t not say much, but his thoughts are invaluable.

What major themes, motifs, or terms does the book introduce, and how effective are they?

In my opinion, one of the main themes is “a quest for identity and reasoning through experiences.” For the quest for identity I think is very prominent in Tasha’s section because it shows her really trying to fit in with the “in-crowd.” For the second theme, that is shown in Octavia’s section where she is trying to reason through why Rodney was taken, as well as why her mother is sending her away. I believe that these themes were shown very effectively because of the age group of the children they go through these things regardless of the situation they are in.

Another theme could be how the children are all trying to gain acceptance in one way. For example, Tasha is trying to be accepted by her peers Monica and the “in-crowd,” while Rodney would just like to be accepted by his father, and Octavia just trying to not be rejected by her class anymore. I think this theme is very effective because of how this story focuses on their experiences.

Did the book appeal to you on an emotional or logical way?

This book really touched me especially Rodney’s section. I was really in tears when he got in the car as well as when his father was beating him in the classroom. I related to Rodney the most because when I moved from Virginia to Illinois – I completely shut down in fourth grade, I never spoke out of turn, and had no real friends. As an extremely shy kid, growing up, I also felt invisible for the year. It hurt me in a sense because I knew right as his father showed up that it was going to break Rodney’s spirit. Part of me, believes that Rodney wanted to get into the car, but I still want to believe that he was forcibly taken. To me, growing up in non-Black spaces, unlike the children in this book it was really interesting to see the dynamics of their classrooms and contrast their childhoods to my own.

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