Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones
Published by Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: January 1, 2002
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Fiction, Childhood, Historical, Literary
In 1979 a serial killer in Atlanta began targeting Black children. This disturbing truth is the premise for Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones. A painfully powerful novel it chronicles the lives of three 10-year-olds living in the neighborhoods where children were vanishing. For each, the disappearances and murders will have an impact on their lives, but in very different ways.
I knew Jones could write compelling fiction after reading An American Marriage, but Leaving Atlanta is her debut and it’s just as strong in its ability to start with a macro view and zoom in on a microcosm. In this case the multiple deaths of Atlanta children is the overriding theme, but Jones takes that and overlays it on the lives of these 3 children. Tasha is a girl who wants to be popular, but just can’t figure out how to make that happen. She begins the school year having worked on her jump rope skills, only to find the cool girls now think it’s silly. Rodney is a classmate from a very poor family who’s bullied both at school and by his father for his size and his creativity. Octavia lives alone with her mother who works from 11pm to 7am so she has to be home alone at night.
Jones heightens the tension by keeping Leaving Atlanta chronological, with each child seeing and referencing the other children and events from further down the line. Tasha is first and what she experiences are the initial disappearances and the community response, people starting to get worried and organizing search parties. Octavia is the final part and now not only are there disappearances, there are bodies and funerals. And still no answers. This linear format leaves no escape, no break with past events. There’s only the world through the eyes of Tasha, Rodney, and Octavia as they struggle to deal with this new unexpected danger even as they’re navigating the existing uncertainties of their daily lives. Through Jones’ vivid prose the fear amongst both children and adults is palpable.
What is most heart wrenching about this novel is its immediacy. These aren’t vague connections, like living in the same state where a mass shooting occurred, these children know each other and as time progresses, they know the boys who have vanished. They’re watching the news and living through it at the same time. It made me remember the quote: A single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. When these kinds of murders make the news the first, and often only thing cited is the number of victims. Leaving Atlanta shatters that complacency, hitting hard with the intimate details of three children in their last year of middle school starting to make the move from childhood to the preteen years and having to learn lessons that no child should have to learn. Leaving Atlanta has even more relevance as Tayari Jones grew up there and knew two of the children who were killed. She acknowledges it was the most profound event shaping her childhood.
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