Cover Story: 2011: The year in review

No, that’s not a misprint

Is it just us, or did 2011 really fly by? It’s been a crazy year, what with Georgia governors in and out of jail with the regularity of hip-hop stars; an intrusive new airport body-search technique that provokes a visceral reaction – literally; the revelation that Kim’s Big Poppa was none other than a certain Atlanta mayor; and the realization that the media greatly exaggerated the negative aspects of a zombie invasion. Typical. So join us in reliving a year that was nothing short of unbelievable. (Frankly, we were tempted to make up some truly outlandish blurbs – such as the Alliance Theatre premiering a musical based on a teen cheerleading movie or downtown Atlanta getting a pirate museum – but we realized you’d never swallow that.) Oh, and save us a Bacchanalia dog with extra mustard.

One by one, governors removed from office

Gov. Nathan Deal had scarcely settled into his new Gold Dome suite in January when he was indicted on a litany of criminal charges including cockfighting, trespassing, aggravated jaywalking and tax evasion on his recently uncovered Hall County moonshine operation. His constitutional successor, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, had no better luck, barely having a chance to warm the seat before he too was forced from office by an archaic state law requiring the governor be able to tie his own shoes. Secretary of State Brian Kemp lasted scarcely longer, stepping down after it was alleged he had long kept a harem of mistresses in a disbanded UGA sorority house. As the chain of succession fell into dispute, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and Attorney General Sam Olens were jailed on disorderly conduct charges for brawling in the Capitol atrium. Until the Georgia Supreme Court issues a ruling in the ongoing legal battle between the state Republican Party and ethics gadfly George Anderson, the day-to-day duties of the governor’s office will continue to be carried out by the court-appointed trustee, Marietta lawyer Roy Barnes.

MARTA starts hauling livestock

In a last-ditch effort to avoid insolvency, Atlanta’s cash-hungry transit system adopted in March a state proposal to supplement its fare revenue by accepting “animal freight.” Republican lawmakers agreed to start providing state funding to MARTA and to begin construction on the long-awaited commuter rail line to Lovejoy after the Atlanta-based agency agreed to transport chickens, cows and other livestock alongside regular passengers. Aside from a cattle stampede at Five Points Station in September in which three sidewalk vendors and a homeless man were trampled, the transition to commercial transport went relatively smoothly. At year’s end, however, state officials were embarrassed when a memo was leaked which hinted that increased state funding might be approved if MARTA were to agree to carry bulk grain shipments for former Gov. Sonny Perdue’s lucrative agribusiness venture.

James Cameron rents, ruins Georgia Aquarium for sci-fi flick

James Cameron’s hopes of topping Avatar with an underwater, seven-hour 3D epic featuring space pirates and beluga whales brought the cocky director in 2011 to — where else? — the Georgia Aquarium. Aided by more than $100 million in state tax incentives, the Oscar winner rented the attraction for an unexpected six months and promised “the most brilliant movie you rubes have ever seen.” Nearby residents and tourists were shaken by deafening explosions and the sight of penguins occasionally attempting to escape through the aquarium’s decorative portholes. Cameron was finally asked to leave Atlanta in October, his film unfinished, after he was caught driving a station wagon filled with sea lions to White Water.

NASCAR blazes through the High

The High Museum of Art has gotten a lot of flack over the last few years from the Atlanta arts community for shiny, big-budget, blockbuster programming that avoids risks and plays to the lowest common denominator. Rather than take the, um, high road, the High stayed the course in 2011, taking its epic agenda a step further with NASCAR: Let the Good Times Roll. Deemed a speed bump by arts activists who lobbied for racier programming, the Talladega Nights-tinged installation was a resounding success; there was a notable influx of patrons from NASCAR HQ in Daytona Beach, Fla. — where, it’s worth mentioning, it is still legal to actually drive on the beach. The exhibit was accompanied by a speed-themed film festival that saw record-breaking attendance and included such NASCAR classics as The Dale Earnhardt Story, Pixar’s Cars, Days of Thunder and NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience.

ParkATL riot

Not since the British Carriage Riots of 1675 has a campaign of intimidation by a parking authority seen such explosive results. On a clear night in early April, a PARKatlanta enforcement agent was issuing tickets along Euclid Avenue in Little Five Points when, without warning, a mob of people — women, men, the elderly, children no taller than a fire hydrant — swarmed the agent’s three-wheeled vehicle, rocking it from side to side (for approximately 17 seconds) until it tipped over. As it lay feebly on its side, it was set ablaze, burning until someone finally urinated on it. Above the melee, a rioter could be heard wailing into the night sky, “They may take our money in the form of parking fines, but they’ll never take ... our freedom!” It later emerged that the parking enforcement officer escaped unscathed by disguising himself as a member of the angry hoard. Two months after the events of that night, PARKatlanta decommissioned its entire fleet of three-wheeled carts — calling them “too vulnerable to displays of widespread indignation” — and instead introduced armored vehicles that have proven markedly more difficult to tip over or set on fire. They are still, occasionally, urinated upon.

Criminal Records expands, offers vintage floppy disk selection

Move over, vinyl. There’s a new anachronistic-chic (though not quite analog) obsession among the city’s musical underground and hipster historians. 2011 saw the return of the floppy, with Little Five mainstay Criminal Records boasting the most expansive collection of the once-futuristic, now resurrected form of data storage. “They’re so ... tactile,” says drummer and pizza guy Steve McKay, flipping through the bins of mini floppies in the back of the store. “They have that distinct smell, plastic with a hint of stainless steel, that, you know, is totally ’90s. And the cool thing is you never know what you’re going to find.” In addition to the bins of mini-floppies, Criminal now buys and sells floppy disk drives (including a coveted IBM 720K with 5.25” frame that’ll set you back $250), and, behind a glass case, a selection of the full-size, actually floppy floppy disks that predated the minis.

Airport searches sink to new depths

2011 was a year during which air travelers pined for the days when all the TSA wanted were unsexy X-ray images of their lumpy naked bodies and maybe a quick tug at their undercarriage. This year, a change in Department of Homeland Security regulations allowed airport agents to take a look at travelers’ most private of private parts — their internal organs. After seven box cutters, three pounds of cocaine and various illegal pieces of foreign produce were discovered inside a woman who had just disembarked a plane from LAX to Charles de Gaulle, the TSA decided it would have to turn people completely inside out before they were able to fly. Passengers subjected to the random inside-outings have consistently reported missing flights out of busy Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Besides being time consuming, the new security measure has been widely described as “wholly uncomfortable.”

Big Poppa finally revealed to be Kasim Reed

“Real Housewives of Atlanta” fans were understandably stunned last May when Kim Zolciak’s mysterious sugar daddy was revealed to be Mayor Kasim Reed. In a heavily promoted prime time special on the local CBS affiliate, the famously eligible bachelor mayor spoke publicly for the first time about his on-again-off-again romance with the wig-wearing reality-TV star, confirming that his security team’s code name for Zolciak was “Hot Mess.” With investigative reporter Wendy Saltzman asking the Tough Questions, Reed explained that he’d met Zolciak through his previous job as a high-powered entertainment lawyer and admitted he’d concealed their relationship out of concern that her outlandish behavior and doomed singing career would hinder his political aspirations. “I want to make this crystal clear,” he said, choking back emotion. “All my other girlfriends — that was just a phase I had to work through as a man focused on his career. But it’s time that Atlanta knew Kim is the love of my life. I’m a big boy; I can take the hit.”

Zombie apocalypse not as bad as expected

Films and movies like the Atlanta-based “The Walking Dead” had for decades envisioned an infestation of reanimated corpses that spells the end of civilization as we know it. Instead, the real zombie outbreak wasn’t all that bad. Sure, the first weeks were pretty off-putting, as the recently deceased rose from their graves to revisit their former homes and workplaces. But rumors that the undead would be fleet-footed, brain-eating cannibals turned out to be greatly exaggerated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still hasn’t announced the origins of the mass zombifications, though the agency was able to conclusively prove that being dead turns out to be a major appetite suppressant. After the initial shock wore off, the zombies turned out to be no more than a nuisance. The living dead simply staggered around stopping traffic, falling down stairs, disrupting sporting events and generally stinking up the place. The silver lining came when the Obama administration revealed that zombie-proofing the country provided a “shovel-ready” stimulus to recharge the economy.

Bradford Cox finds God

The Atlanta music scene was stunned this year when Bradford Cox of Deerhunter announced he was relocating to the wilds of Appalachia to pursue a “more spiritual” path and began posting gospel bedroom recordings via Deerhunter’s blogspot. The realization that this wasn’t just a Joaquin Phoenix-inspired stunt came when Cox transitioned from traditional gospel covers to original songs, often recorded with nothing more than a banjo and punctuated by a few Bible verses. Cox quickly came to dominate the mainstream contemporary Christian pop charts. And Pitchfork gave his Power in the Blood triple-LP a glowing 9.5, thus changing the face of modern indie rock.

Seeger’s new concept takes Atlanta by storm

Rumors swirled when Gunter Seeger announced his return to Atlanta back in March and revealed the location of his new restaurant: the shuttered Dining Room in the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, his old stomping grounds. Many in the food world wondered if Atlanta was to be reunited with super fine dining, only to find themselves caught in a surreal dream when the actual concept — and Seeger’s unlikely partner — were announced. Yet the end result, Y’all Got Wings?, proved that Seeger’s chicken wing eatery and collaboration with incarcerated rap superstar T.I. is not only for real, it’s finger lickin’ good. Fortunately for the rapper, the feds saw fit to release him to a halfway house in time for Y’all Got Wings’ grand opening in July. In the months since, the pair have done what many in the industry thought impossible — launched a wildly popular upscale restaurant serving downscale food in a space that seemed doomed. Nonbelievers around the country have poked fun, but Seeger’s unyielding dedication to quality has redefined the wing. Sourcing from a breed of chicken specially developed for the restaurant (believed to be fed on a strict diet of organic soybeans and high quality Italian barley), Seeger has sacrificed none of his notoriously exacting standards. Don’t miss the Bolivian rainbow pepper-crusted wings with La Peral blue cheese dipping sauce — perfect with Patrón on ice.

Exodus to hot dog land

The sad trend of high-end restaurants closing continued in 2011. After Craft and Craftbar tanked early in the year, the real blow came in May, when Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison announced the shuttering of Bacchanalia. “We’ve decided to focus on what Atlanta really wants,” Quatrano said in a statement. “We’re opening a chain of hot dog stands.” The stands, called Borzoi, were scheduled to launch a first location in October, but issues with the city over granting liquor licenses to establishments with a drive-thru component have held up opening until early 2012. Soon after the Bacchanalia news, Linton Hopkins made the decision to close Restaurant Eugene in order to focus on launching the Holeman and Finch distillery. Oh, well. At least we still had Aria, right? Wrong. Just last week, Gerry Klaskala announced that Aria, considered by many to be the last serious fine dining establishment left in the city, will close in the early months of 2012. Klaskala hasn’t officially revealed what his plans are, but sources close to the chef say he’s looking at the idea of a fleet of gourmet knish food trucks. Pretzels have also been mentioned. I vote for biscuits. Or corn dogs.

Waka Flocka douses Flame

After a fanatical debut (Flockaveli) that made the Waka Flocka Flame name synonymous with all things criminal and cacophonous in Atlanta rap, crunk’s resplendent outlaw-savior, born Juaquin Malphurs, resolved at the top of 2011 to clean his slate by dumping his antagonistic stage moniker. Malphurs’ decision to switch to his Christian name came as a result of his obsession with Joaquin Phoenix’s faux documentary I’m Still Here (2009), in which the Hollywood actor’s supposed transition to stupefied rap star becomes an accidental treatise on the numbing effects of pop excess. “I saw myself in him, his fuck-ups,” a teary-eyed Waka revealed to Barbara Walters during her recent “Most Fascinating People of 2011” special. “I mean, we share the same real name and everything — even though his mama spells his different. Seeing that shit just made me wanna transform, you know, for hip-hop.” He said he hopes name change will usher in new era of civility within rap.

T.I. brokers successful Mideast peace talks

Who would have thought he could top the heroic feat of talking a suicidal jumper down from a Midtown high-rise (let alone launching a high-end restaurant with the likes of Gunter Seeger)? But somehow, Atlanta rapper Clifford “T.I.” Harris did the unthinkable by brokering peace in the Middle East from his cell in an Arkansas federal prison. “It was purely coincidental,” T.I. wrote in a blog posted to his website shortly after the treaty was signed in June. After getting fan mail from both Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas individually expressing their adoration for his current album No Mercy, T.I. invited each for a visit. Unbeknownst to all, the opposing leaders showed up at the Arkansas prison on the same day. “I thought, who better than me to help them bridge this culture gap,” T.I. continued, “me being a dude from Bankhead, the Westside of Atlanta, and them representing the East and West Bank, respectively. Now we’re on that Arab-Israeli road to redemption.” Though viewed with suspicion around the world, the feds deny taking the rapper’s actions into account before authorizing his early release in July.

Continued city creation leaves region with 357 new jurisdictions

Metro Atlanta’s incorporation fever took a nasty turn in 2011 when the new City of Lenox Square filed suit against the weeks-old Phipps Plazaville as part of an ongoing dispute over traffic citation revenue from Peachtree Road. In related news, a contentious referendum passed in September resulted in the break-up of Mall of Georgia, Ga., into separate municipalities on the first and second floors of the sprawling complex. However, taking advantage of a legal loophole, the mall’s IMAX theatre, which occupies the third floor, seceded and obtained its own charter. Meanwhile, the City of Little Five was forced in October to raise its millage rate after it was revealed that city officials had spent most of its reserves on hand-blown water pipes and fish tacos. Finally, the Mayor of Ponce was duly sworn in as official mayor of Ponce in November after winning a close election over Bicycle Shorts Man.

Clermont Lounge leaves namesake home for City Hall East

The year opened with news that the storied Clermont Hotel had been purchased by the Four Seasons resort chain and would be transformed into the Ponce Palazzo, complete with luxury suites lined in Tuscan marble, a truffle bar and a rooftop infinity-pool canal with working gondolas. As a result, the somewhat less up-market Clermont Lounge announced its relocation a block west to become the first occupant of the former City Hall East, renamed Midtown Mercato. The city’s oldest strip club also reopened in August under a new moniker, trading on the familiarity of its best-known employee — Blondie’s Geriatric Jiggle Joint. The owners of the 2 million-square-foot former Sears warehouse also signed other such tenants as Velocipede, a store catering to the recent popularity of the two-wheeled, Victorian-era vehicle among the city’s hipsters; Collateral, Tom Catherall’s hot restaurant concept in which diners must provide proof of sufficient assets before being seated; and Skanque, a boutique featuring original fashions by the Real Housewives of Atlanta.

Zell Miller goes sane

After several years of increasingly irrational public statements, unpredictable behavior and quixotic political moves, the former Georgia governor and U.S. senator abruptly came to his senses during a live interview on the Neal Boortz radio show in April. “Where am I and I why am advocating for this fair-tax bullshit?” Miller said, before being hustled out of the sound booth by WSB producers. A subsequent MRI of Miller’s brain convinced doctor’s that a benign cyst had long been putting pressure on a part of the retired politician’s cerebral cortex that controls cognition. The condition was apparently to blame for the dementia that once led Miller to compare then-Pres. George W. Bush to Winston Churchill and to challenge MSNBC host Chris Matthews to a duel. After viewing hours of old “Daily Show” segments in which he’d been featured, the attention-loving Miller asked doctors if they could put the cyst back in place.

Centennial Park completely saturated with tourist attractions

In the final weeks of 2011, construction crews began site preparation work on the last remaining acreage of Centennial Olympic Park that isn’t already occupied by a museum, hall of fame or carnival ride. Joining the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coke, the Center for Civil and Human Rights and the new Atlanta Eye Ferris wheel this year were Goober World, a museum celebrating the history and cultivation of the peanut; the Georgia-Pacific-sponsored Interactive Institute for Toilet Paper Testing and Research, unofficially nicknamed Wipe U.; and the park’s smallest structure, the Bill Campbell Museum of Non-Felonious Achievement. Other attractions now under construction include the Moonshine Mountain roller coaster; the Confederate Times: Dinner at Andersonville theme restaurant; and the Turner Wax Museum, which will contain nothing but wax sculptures of Ted Turner.

AJC zeroes in on target audience

Leaked early in the year, an internal memo directing reporters to avoid using the term “strip mall” — instead suggesting “linear retail complex” — indicated the AJC was continuing its quest to woo affluent suburban readers. By summer, the newspaper had shut down its Capitol bureau and established satellite newsrooms in the pro shop of the Country Club of the South; the welcome center of the Towne Lake community in Cherokee County; and a Curves on Windward Parkway. To its roster of blogs, the company added “Soccer Mom Confidential,” “The Contented Commuter” and the popular “Booth’s Eye View,” which features random musings from the Barrett Parkway Bahama Breeze. In August, the “County by County” news briefs were expanded from two pages to a stand-alone section with daily updates from Mountain Park, the Chattahoochee Plantation community and the Avenue in East Cobb shopping center. As 2011 ended, AJC executives were touting a soon-to-be released smart-phone app to guide users to the nearest subdivision clubhouse potluck.