Atlanta is 21 children, that's what Atlanta is. I wouldn't take my children on a visit to Atlanta, and if I lived there, I'd . . . well, I'd do something, although I confess I really don't know what.

Because the painful truth -- the gnawing, aching, painful truth -- is I can't do a damn thing, not from Washington, not even from Atlanta. A black man or a white man, a black woman or a white woman or some combination of them is killing our children, erasing them one at a time with violence that leaves its mark gently on their bodies through a simple crack of the neck or breath withheld just too long.

A phantom stealer of life who walks among us at the Post Office, the gas station, the supermarket is gently killing our children, and I really can do nothing, at least nothing more than blacks always have done in self-defense.

If I were in Atlanta, I could call a meeting, and I could talk about the 21 children, 21 black children. I could talk of the horror. I could take of the rage. I could talk of the fear -- the frustrating, helpless, crippling sense of vulnerability I feel for my black children. And I could talk about how it makes me angry to the belly.

If I were in Atlanta I could go to fewer parties, even boycott the recent Atlanta sportsmen's banquet for San Francisco Giants manager Frank Robinson and all-time home run king Hank Aaron, both blacks, just to say something is more important now. I could stay home with my kids or patrol the streets with neighborhood vigilantes or organize more search parties to comb the fields and the underpasses, always watchful for one more hellish discovery. But still the children would be dead.

If I were in Atlanta, I could fight to keep my own kids from being sitting ducks. I could even by myself a gun, as if its cold steel could protect them from someone, who with a smile and an offer of friendship, would instead smother their lives -- while my cold steel is packed neatly among my socks or blouses.

If I were in Atlanta, I could do all these things and, naturally, I would be doing nothing, really.

Unseen and unsuspected, someone still would be killing our children -- and a little bit of me, all blacks and anyone who is a feeling human being. That is the added horror of this psychopathic feast. It has become a gruesome reminder of every petty discrimination every black has ever felt. Atlanta has become a symbol of increasing black alienation in this country, a symbol that black life comes and goes cheaply in America, which is not a revelation. Atlanta has become a symbol that we have slipped into a climate where killing black people, even black children, is all right.

In Salt Lake City, Utah, a sorry drifter is said to have stepped from a dark Camaro and fired his high-powered rifle into two young black men jogging through the park with two white girls. The Ku Klux Klan is found not guilty is North Carolina, the American Nazi Party is winning recruits, Ronald Reagan has swept the wealthy into the White House.

There is a frightening rhythm to all of this.

And from black after black I hear that Atlanta is a beat in this rhythm. If these children had been white, they say, these murders would have been solved long ago, the early investigation never bungled by police, who still have few leads.

The rhythm is seductive.

But all this talk of symbols, of greater conspiracies is wrong. If we are searching for symbols of black oppressioin, they are, indeed, around us daily -- at the University of Kentucky where only 3 percent of its students are black, in numbers which show that the gap between black and white incomes has widened in the last decade, and in our own city where a 76 percent black population goes unrepresented in Congress. Symbols abound: Food stamps, Medicaid, special education and welfare set to be cut back. Blacks are under seige.

And Atlanta is not symbol enough.

It is difficult to imagine, for instance, that anyone would argue that the San Francisco Zebra Killings, the systematic murder of whites by blacks, was anything more than race hatred gone mad, that it meant all blacks abhored whites. Yet, in America, 1981, it is somehow believable that a hand more sinister than depravity has grasped the heart of Georgia.

If I were to guess who is behind these deaths, I would pick a small clique of motley racists. Is that a conspiracy? A conspiracy of illness, maybe.

If Atlanta must be a symbol, it is a symbol of the attitude that has come upon blacks today, a symbol of what has become believable in 1981.

If I were in Atlanta, I could ask that, as always, blacks hang together, man the playgrounds, patrol the streets, watch for those who might be watching them. But that is how it has always been.

Atlanta is 21 children, that's what Atlanta is. That is horrifying enough, especially since there really is little we can do. But this particular sickness must run its course with all the others, from David Berkowitz to Richard Speck to Charles Joseph Whitman.

If I were in Atlanta, I'd tell blacks that all is not well for them in the climes of Georgia -- or America, for that matter. But in Atlanta, all is not well in the mind of someone fighting a demon that is all his own.