Atkinson was born and raised in Brighton, Alabama. His birth name was Cletus, pronounced with a short e sound. According to his column on February 2, 1978, he added the second T during his years at Jones Valley High School in an attempt to prevent people from mispronouncing it as "Cleatus", but it didn't help.
During World War II he was a Marine stationed in the Pacific. He joined the Age-Herald in 1948 as a reporter. He was therefore part of the staff when the Birmingham Post-Herald started by merger in 1950.
In the following decades he would act as reporter, sports writer, columnist, copy editor, layout director, and assistant news editor. He is best known for his daily, page one column, started in 1970 called "People and Things". For his column, Atkinson was awarded the 1971 Ernie Pyle Award for Human Interest Writing, part of the Scripps Howard Foundation's National Journalism Awards. He won additional awards from AP, UPI, and SDX for both his daily columns and his sports writing. In 1980, the Post-Herald published a compilation of columns spanning from 1970 to 1979 called Clettus Volume I.