Review

Leaving Atlanta

by Tayari Jones



It's late summer 1979 in Atlanta, Georgia --- rain has been falling
for three straight months, washing out any hopes of a sun-filled
summer vacation for the city's school children, and though barely
anyone notices, young black boys are going missing. Four children
are found murdered before anyone even admits that there is a
connection between their disappearances. Before it's all over, 29
people, mostly young adolescent boys, are dead. An arrest is
eventually made, and though the murders cease, few believe that the
true Atlanta Child Killer was ever captured. This is the setting of
Tayari Jones's debut novel, LEAVING ATLANTA --- a compelling look
at the fear and suspicion that swept through this already racially
and politically charged Southern city in the late 1970s and early
'80s. Instead of going the obvious route and following the killer
as he preys on the children of the city, Jones instead focuses her
story on the effect the kidnappings have on three inner-city
fifth-graders --- Tasha, Rodney, and Octavia --- classmates at
Oglethorpe Elementary School.

LaTasha Baxter is a sweet-natured and likable girl whose greatest
wish is to fit in with, or at least not be picked on by, the
popular clique in her class. She spends her summer vacation
practicing jumping rope in her basement with little sister DeShaun
just so she can improve her competence in this "proving ground for
girls," only to discover that the popular girls, Monica and
Forsythia, have deemed jumping rope childish as the school year
begins. Thus, Tasha starts the year on the wrong foot and must find
a way to get back into the inner circle. One person who doesn't
find Tasha childish is Jashante Hamilton, an older boy from the
projects who's "been kept back so many times that even he don't
know what grade he supposed to be in." Although she's curious about
Jashante, Tasha is afraid of what Monica and Forsythia might think
if she reveals her interest, and instead tells Jashante, in front
of the whole class, that she wishes the kidnapper would just
"asphyxiate" him. Not only does this make her even more unpopular
with her already nervous classmates, but when Jashante fails to
show up for school a couple of days later, she begins to wonder
about the power of her words.

Rodney Green is an extremely intelligent but painfully shy boy who
spends the majority of his time trying to make himself as invisible
as possible. He's too quiet to fit in with the kids at school and
neither tough enough nor manly enough to get along with his
disciplinarian father at home. Although Rodney's standardized test
scores are above average, his grades are near failing, a
discrepancy his father attributes to the fact that Rodney has never
had to pick cotton to survive. When Rodney's father shows up at
school one day to dole out punishment for some small trespass his
son committed, Rodney is dragged from obscurity into the spotlight
as his father takes a belt to him in front of the entire fifth
grade class. Shamed beyond belief, Rodney wonders why, with
everything else there is to worry about with a killer of black boys
out running loose in the city, his father is instead focused on
humiliating him in front of his peers. As the school day ends,
Rodney sets off in the opposite direction of home, determined to
prove a point, and is confronted with a dangerous opportunity as a
man with an obviously fake police badge pulls up beside him and
asks him to get in his car --- in a split second, Rodney must ask
himself how far he's willing to go to escape his father's
cruelty.

Octavia Harrison is another social misfit at Oglethorpe Elementary
--- teased for being poor and called "Watusi" by her classmates
because her skin is the darkest shade of black --- self-confident
Octavia rises above the taunts and, unlike her "almost friend"
Rodney Green, excels at her studies. Octavia lives just across the
street from the projects (a distinction she is very proud of) with
her hardworking single mom Yvonne. Yvonne and Octavia's father Ray
were never married, and because he lives with his wife and daughter
in the suburbs of South Carolina, Octavia has only seen Ray a few
times in her life. But when the news of the Atlanta Child Murders
begins to spread across the nation, Octavia gets an unexpected call
from Ray inviting her to leave the inner-city and live with him for
safety reasons. Octavia knows this is the chance of a lifetime but
doesn't know if she has it in her to leave her mother behind. But
when someone very dear to Octavia goes missing, she may not have a
choice.

Tayari Jones, herself a fifth grader in Atlanta during the child
murders, effortlessly infuses each of the three children in her
novel with their own unique voice --- moving from Tasha's shy third
person narrative, to Rodney's eerily chilling second person
narrative, to Octavia's wise and straightforward first person
account --- and through doing so creates the mood of an entire
city. Although not as groundbreaking as Alice Sebold's THE LOVELY
BONES, against which there are sure to be comparisons, LEAVING
ATLANTA is nevertheless a touching and powerful debut in its own
right.

Reviewed by Melissa Morgan (morgan9800@yahoo.com) on January 22, 2011

Leaving Atlanta
by Tayari Jones

  • Publication Date: August 1, 2003
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 0446690899
  • ISBN-13: 9780446690898