War officially began two weeks before Atlanta joined the fleet and training was therefore expedited. During the crucial 4-6 June 1942 Battle of Midway Atlanta was in the screen for Enterprise and Hornet, but these ships did not come under attack. Two months later, however, Atlanta joined heavy cruiser Portland and battleship North Carolina in the screen for Enterprise during the 24 August 1942 Battle of the Eastern Solomons. In one of the war's two heaviest air attacks against an American carrier, Atlanta had ample opportunity to perform in her primary air defense role. Lessons learned from this battle had considerable expression in the modification of later cruisers of the class--i.e., more gun directors and more intermediate anti-aircraft guns.
In the early morning hours of 13 November 1942, Atlanta was in a line of 13 American cruisers and destroyers which ran headlong into a Japanese formation of 14 warships that included two battleships. The night action of 13 November was the first of three major battles over a three-day period (13-15 November), but Atlanta lived only to fight in the battle of the 13th. Being the first cruiser in the American formation, Atlanta drew initial attention from the enemy and beams of light illuminated her. Atlanta's guns extinguished several enemy spotlights and blazed away at enemy ships on both sides of her. Within 10 minutes, however, the cruiser built to fight planes, destroyers and submarines had taken at least one torpedo and approximately 50 major-caliber hits including several from battleship Hiei. On fire, taking water, and without power, Atlanta drifted out of the fight, but before the confused battle ended the wounded cruiser took two more devastating broadsides from a cruiser. The last two salvos were believed to have been fired by USS San Francisco, which ironically was one of the other two American World War II cruisers to win the Presidential Unit Citation and which won the award for this same action.
At daylight the cruiser was still afloat and she remained afloat until dark when the decision was made to scuttle the ship. Beaching was out of the question due to the presence of the enemy and repair facilities were too far distant for the terribly hurt ship. One hundred seventy-two men died with their ship and 79 were wounded. Today the cruiser rests at the bottom of Savo Sound about three miles off Lunga Point, Guadalcanal.