Atlas was a legendary king of Mauretania that roughly corresponds with modern Morocco today. King Atlas was said to have been skilled in philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. He was also credited with inventing the first celestial globe. A celestial globe shows the positions of the stars and plantets in the sky relative to earth. In some medieval texts, Atlas is even credited with the invention of astronomy itself.
Atlas' best-known cultural association is in cartography / maps. The first publisher to associate the Titan Atlas with a group of maps was Antonio Lafreri, on an engraved title-page in 1572. However, he did not use the word "atlas" in the title of his work. The mapmaker Gerardus Mercator was the first to put a picture of Atlas holding up the world - not the heavens - on the title page of his book.
In this book, Atlas serves as a metaphor for all the smart, creative "doers" in the world: the industrialists, the artists, the engineers, the professors, the workers, etc. Ayn Rand, the author, believes that the heroes in society are people that develop their talents to achieve instead of living off others. Just like Atlas on the book cover, these are the people in her books responsible for supporting the entire world. In Rand's stories they are all mistreated and are often opposed and held back by bad government policies. So in the book Atlas Shrugged they all go on strike and basically "shrug" off the weight of the world. Rand's weaves her philosophies on how to live life into her books and characters. Themes include the idea that people need to fight for their own life's goals, act on them, and have courage to become the best they can be. She believes in the importance of the productive individual, one that chooses to live and shapes the world around them in a creative way that is in line with thier values. Rand cautions falling into the trap of a blank routine where others perscribe your actions as your precious life rusts away. She believes that mans greatest goal in life should be the pursuit of happiness and achievment as every person has the ability to live a rich, independent, and fulfilling life.