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2008: The year that didn't (totally) suck

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Bankruptcy. Foreclosure. Recession. Layoffs. Crime. Death. Even a freakin' tornado. Let's face it: 2008 wasn't our best year.

Then again, it wasn't our worst. For instance, in years past we would have scoffed at the touchy-feely optimism that drips from the catchwords "hope" and "change." But even our jaded-ass attitudes softened when America's first African-American president cruised to victory on a platform that promised just that.

There were the little things – like the Atlanta Ballet's big. There were the big things – like longtime death row inmate (and possibly innocent man) Troy Davis getting two stays of execution. On the music front, Criminal Records bucked the downsizing trend by expanding its Little Five Points digs, and Poncey-Highland's historic Highland Inn Ballroom Lounge landed firmly on the map of hipster hangouts. In the food realm, Holeman and Finch set the bar – and set it high – for the city's surge of gastropubs, while Atlanta rock-star molecular gastronomist Richard Blais almost took the prize on Bravo's "Top Chef." (A reality-TV moment of pride that was all but eclipsed by the weirdness that was Bravo's "The Real Housewives of Atlanta." Oh well.)

Yes, despite the gloom and doom, 2008 had its high points. Here are a few.

Emotion boils over at the Obama street party: Less than one hour after President-elect Barack Obama delivered a midnight victory speech on election night, more than 400 revelers gathered outside Ebenezer Baptist Church – where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached – to rejoice over two bits of news: the election of the nation's first African-American president and the hopeful arrival of some much-needed change.

Stage Door Players' $16,000 gift: This year, Dunwoody's first elected mayor, Ken Wright, made a pledge reminiscent of those auto industry CEO's offering to accept $1 for a year's pay in exchange for a bailout. Wright pledged to donate his $16,000 salary for his first year as mayor to small, 24-year-old Stage Door Players. Who says local politicians don't care about the arts?

Revitalization of Edgewood Avenue: Edgewood Avenue has been struggling for years to utilize the fantastic raw materials – vintage storefronts and easy access from many parts of town – that it has to offer. This year, finally, the street has seen a real explosion of businesses, mainly eateries. At the beginning of the year, Dynamic Dish – possibly the best vegetarian restaurant in the universe – started serving dinner. Café Circa then opened its doors, followed by Noni's, Danneman's and the Bureau. Look for Miso Izyaka early next year. Hurray for Japanese pubs and the Old Fourth Ward!

Janelle Monáe jets to stardom: When underground darling Monáe signed with Bad Boy Records, her supporters worried that she'd switched to the dark side. But the notoriously controlling Diddy granted Monáe and her label, Wondaland Arts Society, unprecedented creative freedom. It ended up a heavenly match made amid hellacious music industry times. The deal heightened Monáe's media exposure, and Diddy's label earned some indie credibility. This year's Grammy nod added icing to the cupcake.

Jim Powell machetes through state's legal system: Powell, the Democratic candidate for Georgia Public Service Commission, trumped Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel's dogged challenges to his candidacy all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court. Yet his courtroom victory was bittersweet: Powell went on to win the popular vote on Nov. 4, but lost in a Dec. 2 runoff.

Richard Blais almost wins Top Chef: It was a good year in reality television for our fair city (hey, you take what you can get!), particularly thanks to chef Blais, who made it to the finals of Bravo's "Top Chef." Our hometown molecular gastronomist didn't take home the big prize, but he made many Wednesday evenings in 2008 more exciting than they were before or since. (Seriously, have you been watching this season? Snore ...)

Dragon*Con gets bigger and weirder: Thanks to the constantly growing need to escape reality, Dragon*Con 2008 was bigger and geekier than ever. More parents dragged their costumed kids through the throngs of snap-happy crowds than in years past, another hotel was added to expand the square footage of sci-fi insanity, and there was a creepy crazy Joker in every corner. Here's hoping next year's 'Con will be even more fantastical – maybe with life-sized, fire-breathing dragons? A girl can only dream.

big is a hit: OutKast's Antwan "Big Boi" Patton turned the Fox Theatre all spottieottiedopalicious last April when he got together with the Atlanta Ballet for the groundbreaking big. The hip-hop ballet included a cameo from local space-soul darling Janelle Monáe and raised folks outta their chairs and into the aisles during the finale. You won't see that at The Nutcracker.

Perdue finally gives his blessing to commuter rail: After years of believing that transportation progress is measured by building more roads, the state finally gave props to its railroad roots. Gov. Sonny Perdue, battered by anger over high gas prices, realized the long lines could materialize again and expressed his support for an Atlanta-to-Griffin commuter-rail line.

WonderRoot gets off the ground: Since 2003, artists and friends Chris Appleton, Alex West and Witt Wisebram long had a vision of an artistic catalyst for social change. The vision finally took physical shape when WonderRoot opened as a music venue/classroom/art gallery/media center in a house off Memorial Drive.

D. Woods earns her freedom: King men's magazine seemed not to mind D. Woods' shapely curves half as much as Diddy did when he handpicked the singer/dancer for the dainty Danity Kane on MTV's "Making the Band." In October 2008, he unceremoniously dropped her from the manufactured girl group because of irreconcilable differences. Suddenly Woods was free to strut her stuff – thick thighs, sexually liberated lyrics and all – with her own Atlanta-based trio, Girls Club. Perhaps another King cover is in order.

August Wilson comes Full Circle: Few stage plays live up to the feeling of "event" so fully as the Alliance Theatre's double-header of Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf. The same actors, including Chad L. Coleman of HBO's "The Wire," starred in both Gem (directed by True Colors Theatre artistic director Kenny Leon) and Golf (directed by the Alliance's associate artistic director Kent Gash), plays set in the 1900s and 1990s, respectively, which bookend Wilson's "Century Cycle" of African-American urban life. Shows of such magnitude don't come around often in a decade, let alone a single year.

Highland Inn becomes a hot spot: The Highland Inn Ballroom Lounge in Poncey-Highland went from dark and desolate basement to ground zero for hipsters this year. The basement of the shabby-chic hotel played host to monthly jazz shows; rock, country and soul DJ nights; Kirkwood Ballers Club gatherings; and performances by indie darlings Noot d'Noot and Judi Chicago. Thanks to some clever booking and an enthusiastic crowd, the historic space is now a destination.

King Tut takes on The First Emperor: Who wins when a lavish touring exhibit of the treasures of Tutankhamun opens simultaneously with the High Museum's smaller-scale but equally impressive collection of China's Terracotta Warriors? We do! On display through the spring of 2009, the Civic Center's King Tut and the High Museum's The First Emperor present the rock stars of the arts and antiquities world, the juxtaposition of which encourages visitors to more deeply consider concepts of the afterlife and aesthetic styles – while supporting "Tutlanta" businesses at the same time.

Criminal Records expands: While the music industry and the economy sank further down the tubes, Criminal Records rose above the fray and settled into bigger and better digs. It seems that escapism was the only thriving industry in 2008. In these troubled times, the store's broad swath of indie music, toys and comics can be considered an opiate for the masses.

Awesome drops: With the publication of his first novel, Awesome, witty Atlanta author Jack Pendarvis made 2008 a little more you-know-what. Awesome recounts the tale of a confident, charismatic, robot-building giant (he's almost like a contemporary cross between Paul Bunyan and Watchmen's Dr. Manhattan) who sets out to prove his love for a woman named Glorious Jones by setting off across America to find impossible artifacts. It's like finding a needle in a haystack. (No, really. One of the things he has to find is a needle in a haystack.) A book so funny and flat-out strange must be touched by both genius and madness.

Decatur Book Festival perseveres: The publishing industry may be headed to the morgue and the printed word is in ICU, but the Decatur Book Festival rocks on. In its third year, the Labor Day celebration of all things literary continued to build a local fan base and a national reputation.

We Fun Atlanta rock doc comes to town: For 10 months in 2008, Nashville filmmakers Matthew Robison and Chris Dortch descended on Atlanta to document the city's drunk and disorderly punk and garage-rock scenes. The debauchery that ensued while the cameras were rolling has become the stuff of legend. We're psyched about a final cut of We Fun – and a release date – in '09.

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