Atlanta

It's a fine spring afternoon in Atlanta, with bright sunshine sparkling off the tall buildings downtown and the scent of new growth, of wisteria and freshly cut grass, hanging in the warm air of the city's quiet neighborhoods.On days like this, the city feels not at all like the bustling hub of the South, the "buckle on the Sun Belt." It feels like a sleepy antebellum town where things occur in slow motion, when they bother to happen at all.

But then the radio and televison stations start blaring the news: another person missing. And a curious ritual, a set-peice of sadness and anxiety, commences.

Over the course of two years, and with the bodies of 26 murder victims to lend experience, Atlanta has learned just what to do when a black youth is reported missing.

Last Tuesday, Atlanta police put out an alert for Anthony Gates, a 22-year-old deaf-mute who last had been seen the afternoon before and who uncharacteristically had not shown up at his job that morning.

Gates appeared to fit the pattern of the most recent deaths, which have involved small young adults with disabilities. The case worried officials enough that they sent out a "general alarm," indicating that they were taking the Gates case much more seriously than a routine missing persons report.

The radio stations began leading their hourly newscasts with news of Gates' disappearance. Beveraly Harvard, spokesman for the Atlanta police, was ready with details: 5 foot 3, 140 pounds, last seen wearing a green and white plaid shirt and green pants, lived in southeast Atlanta.

In the careful phraseology that city officials use when talking about the murders, when asked if Gates matched the pattern she would say only that "he is a small adult," letting the implication dangle there for the grabbing.

Everybody grabbed. Within an hour, six reporters had converged on Gates' home, a ramshackle woodframe house with a wide front porch furnished with creaky rocking chairs. The reporters rocked idly, creaking, feeling subdued, waiting for the FBI agent inside to finish talking with Gates' mother. Waiting their turn.

The FBI man, Clint Baber, finally emerged after 45 minuted. Did he believe that Gates, with his handicap, was particularly vunerable to whatever had lured the victims? "Who knows what the others were susceptible to?" Baber said. "Who knows what the means of persuasion was? There's really very little I can say at this point." He climbed into his car and drove away.

Gates' mother, Betty Carter, said, "He's got a great personality, everybody likes him. He's never been in any kind of trouble. I'm just wondering where he is, why he hasn't come home."

Was Gates aware of the killings? (The reporters slipped into the past tense.) "We told him," said Carter. "Every time it came on the television, we showed him." He seemed to have overcome his handicap, a reporter observed. Carter's eyes filled with tears. "He hasn't overcome it," she said. "As long as he lives, he will be a deafmute. As long as he lives."

The Gates disappearance led the evening newscasts. A half-hour later, the news shows were interrupted with a bulletin: Gates had been found, alive and well. Typically stingy with information, the police refused to say where Gates had been.

On Thursday, a steady drizzle fell on Atlanta from a gray sky. By noon, another youth had been reported missing and another general alarm had gone out.

Harvard gave the details: Eric Thompson, 5 foot 3, pounds, 14 years old. He had been missing since Tuesday, but no report was made until Wednesday.

At mid-afternoon, no one was home at the southeast Atlanta apartment -- in the Broadmoor Apartments, a threadbare complex -- where Thompson lived. But a neighbor, Lillian Collins, was available to give the inevitable answers to the inevitable questions.

"He was a good boy," she said. "I liked him. He used to come by here every day and walk my daughter to school. Some boys said that somebody grabbed him, when he was going up to McDonald's to get something to eat."

A reporter reminded her that the boy hadn't yet been located. "No, they ain't found him yet," Collins said. "But when they find them, they always find them dead."

A few hours later, after the evening news shows have made the Thompson disappearance their top story, Eric Thompson turned up. Alive, well, unharmed.

The pattern is numbing. After a while, the dissappearances run together. The whole city is on a body watch, waiting for the next victim to be fished out of the Chattahoochee River or to be found in some overgrown field.

The following day, police send out the alarm for 14-year-old Matthew Curry. After the familiar ritual, he is found, alive and well.

But Atlanta assumes, on depressingly good evidence, that sooner or later will come a story with the same beginning but with a different ending -- tragedy.