Attalla is located in Etowah County, in the Gadsden metro area. The site was part of an Indian village of substantial importance during the Creek War. Several opinions exist about the origin of its name ‘Attalla.’ A book on place-names in Alabama suggests that the first settlement here was called Atale, a corruption of the Cherokee word ‘otali’, or ‘mountain’, but ‘my home’ is the most generally accepted meaning. La Fayette visited the area in 1825, as a guest of the U. S. Government. Courter B. Chateaubriand, a French writer who wrote a novel Atala, an Indian Maiden, was another visitor around the same time. According to records from the Tennessee Conference of the Methodist Church, a Methodist preacher was sent in 1832 from the Cedar Bluff Circuit to ‘New Town’, whose location coincides with the present Attalla. Some time between 1832 and 1840, the name ‘New Town’ was changed to ‘Newton’ and that name was used until February 21, 1870, when Attalla was chosen as the name for the post office. A Presbyterian church, the first church in Attalla, was built in 1851. Attalla was incorporated in 1872.
P. J. Smith, who was sent south by a northern concern to set up Republican newspapers in towns and cities of the South, began his newspaper, the Republican Union, in Attalla on Friday, May 20, 1870. In the early 1870s, the Wills Valley Railroad was completed from Chattanooga, Tennessee, along the base of historic Lookout Mountain to Attalla. The Alabama Great Southern Railroad was constructed through Attalla in 1879.
Attalla was the largest iron ore shipping point in the state in the 1890s. Attalla was the first city in the United States to have electric street lights. The origins of Alabama Power Company can be traced to Attalla and the company still supplies free electricity to the city's public schools.