Prior to his motorsport career, Atkinson had a career as a stockbroker. He graduated at Bond University in commerce, majoring in finance and accounting in 1999 after receiving an academic scholarship for studies. Atkinson was a co-driver for his brother Ben, but after attending a rally school with his brother, the pair swapped positions, scoring a class win and third overall. Currently, his brother Ben Atkinson is a co-driver for Cody Crocker in APRC.
For his first full season of competition, Atkinson contested the Australian Rally Championship aboard a privately-entered Group N Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, finishing inside the top ten in Group N and in the overall top 20 on every round he contested, as well as setting two second-fastest stage times. The Atkinsons finished ninth outright to become Privateer Champions. This performance brought Atkinson to the attention of Suzuki, who offered him the opportunity to drive one of its Super 1600 Ignis models with the Suzuki Sport team in the 2003 Asia-Pacific Rally Championship.
Atkinson rewarded the team with a class win in the opening round of the championship in Canberra. Next came a second place in New Zealand, a second in Japan and two wins in Thailand and India, culminating in Atkinson winning the Super 1600 title. He finished fifth in the overall championship, ahead of many more powerful, four-wheel-drive, turbo-charged cars.
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