Then came Vick's fall - the dogfighting conviction and 15-month prison term, and his release by the Falcons. Empty seats at the Georgia Dome inevitably followed.
"It crushed the city," said a locally based hip-hop artist, Mike Bigga. "When he fell, it crushed the hopes and dreams of an entire city."
That's the part Young doesn't want people to forget as Vick returns, even as the former pastor preaches forgiveness.
"I think the Falcons did very well by him," said Young, who serves on a Falcons advisory board and makes his allegiance clear. "It really wrecked our team for a year. We were a basket case, and lost a lot of money."
A downtown street named for Young passes right by the Georgia Dome. When Vick first came to Atlanta, Young said, he and Hank Aaron, the city's greatest historical figure in sports, talked to Vick.
"I took him aside and told him about the pressures of being in Atlanta," Young said. "My worry was that as a young man in Atlanta - when a guy comes to town with $100 million and everybody knows it - there are probably as many beautiful unmarried women here as anywhere in the country, with good jobs, and well-educated. That's where I thought the danger was."
Young had seen it before, he said. Often.
"When Brett Favre was here, he ran wild," Young said, remembering when Favre spent his rookie season of 1991 with the Falcons. "If he had not gone to Green Bay, he never would have made it. He was a kid when he was here, and he acted like a kid. Mike didn't do that. Mike went home."
That, as it turned out, led to its own set of problems. Vick wasn't sponsoring dogfights in Atlanta. That all happened near Newport News, Va., where Vick was raised.
"He was loved by everybody, but nobody really got a chance to know him because he'd go back to Virginia as soon as the games were over," Young said. "He never really became an Atlanta resident. He maybe dropped by a church, but he never really became a part of Atlanta. I understand that - he was young, from a small town. It can be overwhelming to a young man. It was to me, and I had no money."
Vick, of course, showed up with much greater fanfare.
"When he came here, he was given a crown," Young said.
In front of the brick First Iconium Baptist Church, Rachel Taylor held a placard promoting a candidate for the City Council, trying to get drivers in East Atlanta to stop in and vote in Tuesday's local runoff election.
As she stood on a sidewalk, Taylor agreed to answer a couple of poll questions:
Would she cheer or boo Vick's return to the Georgia Dome?
"I would cheer his return," Taylor said without hesitation. "He did his time, paid his dues. He's back out there performing."
Even forgiving Eagles fans would argue with that last sentence - most wonder what exactly Vick is doing in an Eagles uniform, since he barely sees the field - but here, they vividly remember a different Vick.
Taylor summed up the excitement of watching the old Vick perform: "OK, what are you going to do this time?"
And she's not much of a football fan, she said.
Who starts for your team? Michael Vick or Matt Ryan?
Ryan, the second-year quarterback from Exton and Penn Charter, isn't expected to play Sunday because of a toe injury, but did he capture the populace with his strong rookie season?
"I only know Michael Vick," Taylor said. "I haven't paid attention to Matt Ryan."
How many people in Atlanta gave variations of Andrew Young's talk to Vick?
Mike Bigga, the Morehouse College-educated rapper formerly known as Killer Mike, said he pulled Vick aside once during Vick's second or third season in the league.
He remembers telling Vick: "Because you're an athlete, I need you to understand. There are thousands of children who live across the street from that Dome who never will get into that Dome to see you play, but you are an iconic figure.
"You are inspiring some kid to walk past the trap where they sell dope at and make him play football for his little league, and stay with it and play in high school. You are black history moving on the field."
Later, Mike Bigga said, "watching him become dehumanized . . . was almost too much to bear. It caused a deep moral sadness. Helping him was out of our control. When African American boys become wards of the state, it brings a hopelessness. Very few of them come out the other side."
Mike Bigga, who featured OutKast on guest vocals on his first album, said Sunday's game wasn't as important as Tuesday's mayoral election. He put it this way on his own blog: "Black politicians work with the white corporate business community for the betterment of both communities. Blacks get city contracts, and build multimillion-dollar corporations. . . . Coke, Delta and John Wieland homes keep their headquarters in the city and provide jobs. Because the tax base is strong and the politicians have built a symbiotic relationship with the right white money we have been able to keep all our sports teams in the city. That keeps tax dollars in the hood so if Vick goes that's cool but if the Dome goes to the burbs that's a problem."
Mike Bigga plans to cheer for Vick, but said Vick "definitely messed up big-time. . . . We have to acknowledge the fact that athletes themselves are in a culture that permits them to get away with as much as possible as long as they are good for the game. The culture of corruption seeps in."
As for the Vick-or-Ryan question, Mike Bigga said: "This is a hard answer because Mike is an associate. He knows I have a lot of respect for him. But Matt's winning. Purely as a sports fan - he's winning."
And that matters, he said.
"I have a philosophy that no city is truly great until you start putting up banners," Mike Bigga said.
In a way, the quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons becoming the highest-paid player in the NFL, as Vick did, seemed natural.
Atlanta had gotten used to big things happening, and not just on the field.
"We had a very good run," said Andrew Young, who started the first of his two terms as Atlanta's mayor in 1981, the year after Atlanta International Airport opened. Young later was a key figure in Atlanta's being chosen to host the 1996 Olympics.
"We brought in $70 billion in new investments - 1,100 companies moved here," Young said. "We created over a million new jobs. The one thing we insisted on was joint ventures. Almost all of the government construction was done by black and white contractors together.
"We also have six black colleges. So you have a community that is extremely well-educated and also has access to money. We've built our own economy. The million-dollar houses that these athletes are living in are quite often being built by black contractors and financed by black institutions."
In Atlanta, race isn't a subject to be avoided. In Tuesday's mayoral runoff, Kasim Reed got 42,348 votes to 41,728 for Mary Norwood.
In yesterday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the front-page headline read, "Mayoral votes cast along racial lines."
Reed and Norwood weren't first identified by party affiliation or former job. The story read: "Black candidate Kasim Reed appears to have won Tuesday's runoff election against white candidate Mary Norwood. . . . Votes were cast sharply along racial lines. . . . This pattern appears to have crossed class lines, with voters in wealthier and poorer sections all voting for the candidate who shared their skin color."
What does this have to do with Vick's return? Opinions about him tend to break along the same racial divide.
"I think that was a racial fault line here," said Tom Houck, a white political commentator who once worked as Martin Luther King's driver. "Probably 90 percent of African Americans wanted Vick" to come back to the Falcons. "Probably in the high 60s and 70s of whites felt the other way."
Outside the polling station in an integrated and gentrifying neighborhood of East Atlanta, a small sampling of opinion roughly matched Houck's analysis. Nobody defended Vick's behavior. African Americans tended to believe Vick had paid a high cost. Of a dozen African American voters at that precinct, none said they would boo Vick if they were at the Georgia Dome. Of a half-dozen whites, half said they would boo him.
"I think being a superstar in sports, that's a rare privilege," said Guyton Maurice, who is white. "I don't think it should be taken lightly."
Everybody offered nuances. Regardless of race, the sports fans polled all said Matt Ryan had earned their support after having led the Falcons to the playoffs as a rookie, even though there had been more rough patches this season even before his injury.
"Matt Ryan is a true student of the game," said Jason Spears, who is black and said he would also cheer Vick.
Young wants to make sure people understand dogfighting's historical roots.
"I've lived in the South all my life - I had never run into dogfighting," Young said. "I had lived in Louisiana, South Georgia, Alabama. I was pastor of rural churches. I had never heard of anyone dogfighting. But the area [Vick] came from in Virginia, the old-England connections brought in dogfighting. This was a sport of royalty in England. This sport didn't come from the African American population.''
Young's philosophy about Vick now: "I think you have to be able to get back up. There's a gospel song that's popular - we fall down and we get up. A saint is just a sinner who fell down and got up. Everybody wants to see Mike get back up. We'd like to see him make it."
Just not in Atlanta, Young added, and "not this Sunday."
Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or firstname.lastname@example.org.