Besides having a cool name, atomics are crucial for writing concurrent code.

We first need to think about how computers perform operations. On a a 32-bit machine, loading (reading) a 64-bit value would require two CPU operations, one for the first 32 bits and one for the second 32 bits.

Suppose each box represents a byte (8 bits):

v    Load 1             v
|     |     |     |     |     |     |     |     |
                        ^         Load 2        ^

This shows how a load of a variable can take multiple steps.

Atomic operations take only one step. They have no intermediate observable state, which means the CPU only observes them as having happened or not.

This is very important in multithreaded scenarios because if threads use non-atomic operations, loads and scores might end up overlapping, resulting in torn reads and writes.

For example, on our hypothetical 32-bit machine, one core might finish the first write to the 32-bit value, another core then might perform the two loads needed to load the value, and then the first core might finish the storing the last 32 bits. Now, one core has a value that is half gibberish!

This is an example of a data race, an example of undefined behavior.