Leaving Atlanta is the stunning debut novel of rising literary star, Tayari Jones. The novel is set in the Atlanta during the height of what we all know as the Atlanta Child Murders. In real life, between 1979 and 1982 twenty-nine African American children and young adults disappeared, some who later turned up murdered.
The novel examines the abductions and murders from the perspective of three fifth graders, each affected in some way or another by the crimes. Jones, who was born and raised in Atlanta, has a unique perspective of the story that gripped a nation for over two years. As a child coming of age during the murders, Jones knew two of the young victims personally. On her website, the writer explains: As the survivors, we have a responsibility to tell the story… the time had come for someone of my generation, to tell the tale from the vantage point of the playground.”
The novel is told in three distinct yet interwoven tales. The fifth graders, LaTasha Baxter, Rodney Green, and Octavia Fuller have a lot in common. Each is a bit of an outcast in their class. They aren’t what you would call friends, but they are connected by the bonds of the others. They come from different families of varying socioeconomic background, but the sense of loneliness they feel connect them in ways that not even they understand.
In Part One entitled “Magic Words,” the reader is introduced to LaTasha, a girl whose parents are in the midst of a separation just as she returns to school for the fifth grade. LaTasha longs to be popular and has spent all summer practicing jump rope and jacks so that she can make a good impression on her classmates. LaTasha’s perspective is given in the third person, allowing the reader a full picture of her experiences. Part Two entitled “The Opposite Direction of Home,” we are reintroduced to Rodney, the boy LaTasha deemed the weirdest kind in school. Rodney is an intelligent, quiet loner who longs for his father’s approval but accepts that he will never truly have it. Rodney’s second person account is without question the most chilling section of the novel. Lastly, in Part Three, entitled “Sweet Pea,” we get a first person account of Octavia’s life and how she is dealing with the heightened fear that permeates Atlanta in the midst of the abductions.
Leaving Atlanta is haunting to say the least. Jones’ use of detail is exquisite. The fear that the children feel is palpable. Jones also explores parent/child relationships in a manner that is emotional and heartfelt. The greatest strength of the novel is Jones’ success at balancing the sense of fear, with the everyday growing pains of adolescence that the three kids experience. Leaving Atlanta is a remarkable novel and an incredible starting point of what is destined to be an amazing literary career for Jones.
Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones.
New York: Warner Books 2002