A decomposition of meridional overturning circulation (MOC) cells into geostrophic vertical shears, Ekman, and bottom pressure–dependent (or external mode) circulation components is presented. The decomposition requires the following information: 1) a density profile wherever bathymetry changes to construct the vertical shears component, 2) the zonal-mean zonal wind stress for the Ekman component, and 3) the mean depth-independent velocity information over each isobath to construct the external mode. The decomposition is applied to the third-generation Hadley Centre Coupled Ocean–Atmosphere General Circulation Model (HadCM3) to determine the meridional variability of these individual components within the Atlantic Ocean. The external mode component is shown to be extremely important where western boundary currents impinge on topography, and also in the area of the overflows. The Sverdrup balance explains the shape of the external mode MOC component to first order, but the time variability of the external mode exhibits only a very weak dependence on the wind stress curl. Thus, the Sverdrup balance cannot be used to determine the external mode changes when examining temporal change in the MOC. The vertical shears component allows the time-mean and the time-variable upper North Atlantic MOC cell to be deduced at 25°S and 50°N. A stronger dependency on the external mode and Ekman components between 8° and 35°N and in the regions of the overflows means that hydrographic sections need to be supplemented by bottom pressure and wind stress information at these latitudes. At the decadal time scale, variability in Ekman transport is less important than that in geostrophic shears. In the Southern Hemisphere the vertical shears component is dominant at all time scales, suggesting that hydrographic sections alone may be suitable for deducing change in the MOC at these latitudes.