Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.


Vandalism is a motif throughout the book, representing both the positive and negative ways the past can resurface. When Atlas sees the misspelled profanity graffitied on Bib’s, he immediately thinks of his mother, who mispronounced the curse in the same way when she attacked him with it. Sutton has told Josh throughout his life that Atlas abandoned him, when in reality, Atlas didn’t know Josh existed. Josh’s repeated acts of targeted vandalism suggest his behaviors are a way for the lost and lonely Josh to connect with his brother. To do so, Josh uses the only tools he knows about from his mother—aggression, name-calling, and acts of transgression—to ask for what he needs: the love and attention of his brother. Atlas, though he doesn’t know that the vandal is his brother, immediately has empathy for the boy, recalling his own past as an abandoned youth without housing. As a result, the vandalism serves as a coded plea for help that Atlas responds to with characteristic compassion and grace, opening a door for a future relationship with Josh. 


Closets are a motif in Atlas and Lily’s budding romance, serving to protect the couple from violence and scrutiny in the early stages of reconnecting. When Atlas visits Lily in the flower shop and Ryle shows up unexpectedly, Lily hides Atlas in the office supply closet, suggesting that she is willing to go to great and sometimes embarrassing lengths to protect the people she loves. By hiding Atlas in the closet, she protects Atlas from a likely physical attack from Ryle and guards her budding romance from Ryle’s jealous interference. After Ryle leaves, Atlas pulls Lily into the closet, and it becomes a safe space for them to have the privacy to reconnect. Similarly, when Lily and Atlas are about to sleep together, they meet in Lily’s closet, where Lily is stuck in her dress and nervous about being with Atlas. The closet provides a space outside of the everyday where Lily and Atlas can connect and find each other again. Atlas gently helps Lily out of her dress and helps her come out of the closet, an event that occurs before their relationship is also exposed. By closeting their relationship until it was on surer footing, Lily and Atlas create a foundation that allows them to face the challenges that await them. 

Finding Nemo 

Finding Nemo is a motif throughout the novel, representing both Atlas’s and Lily’s tenacity in the face of danger and pain as well their happy ending. The movie has been significant to Atlas and Lily since they were teenagers seeking comfort and kindness in it as they escape their abusive families. Specifically, the movie is important because Ellen DeGeneres, to whom Lily addresses her diary, voices the character Dory whose motto “just keep swimming” was adopted by Atlas and Lily in the face of their teenage separation. When Ryle views the film for the first time, he rages that Dory, Emerson’s middle name, is related to something Lily shared with Atlas. Ryle’s reaction to the film becomes another arduous ordeal that Lily has to “just keep swimming” in the face of. His reaction also underscores one of the differences between Atlas and Ryle: Atlas admired Lily’s love of the film and joined in it with her, using images and quotes from the film as part of their love story. Ryle, instead, made the film about himself and his jealousy of Atlas, which drives another wedge between Lily and Ryle and solidifies Lily’s commitment to Atlas. Atlas references the movie in his vows at the end of the novel, saying “It is my wish for you to be my fish,” suggesting that their tenacity has carried them beyond the danger and pain of their pasts toward a future filled with love and humor.