In 2016, Payne Lindsey, a twenty-eight-year-old freelance filmmaker in Georgia—now thirty, and the host of “Atlanta Monster,” the No. 1 podcast on iTunes for much of its existence, about the Atlanta child murders of 1979-81—was looking for a project. “I’ve been a storyteller my whole life,” he told me recently. Professionally, he’d been working on commercials, short films, music videos. “I wanted to make my breakout documentary piece, my first film,” he said. “I wanted to do something really big, and I was always a fan of true crime.” He liked “Serial,” “Making a Murderer,” and, especially, “The Jinx,” Andrew Jarecki’s 2015 HBO documentary about the alleged serial killer Robert Durst. “I was blown away by it,” Lindsey said. “You know—wow. These guys really did make a difference.” (A hearing for a possible murder trial for Durst is scheduled for April.) “They basically caught this guy red-handed,” Lindsey said. “It’s possible. I was, like, What if I could do that?”
Lindsey had no experience in journalism or investigation. “But I liked doing it, just like anyone else,” he said. “I think everyone has a little sleuth in them.” He searched online for Georgia cold cases and, intrigued by the one with the biggest file in the history of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, that of the 2005 disappearance of Tara Grinstead, a high-school teacher in rural Ocilla, he decided to investigate. What he found led not to a film but to his first podcast, “Up and Vanished.” “I didn’t want to raise money,” he told me. “I wanted to get the story out there first and work on building something big.” He teamed up with a producing partner, Donald Albright, a music-industry veteran. They ultimately formed a company called Tenderfoot TV—a name that’s a bit odd to keep hearing repeated on a podcast.