An era of exploring the interactions of high-intensity, hard X-rays with matter has begun with the start-up of a hard-X-ray free-electron laser, the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS). Understanding how electrons in matter respond to ultra-intense X-ray radiation is essential for all applications. Here we reveal the nature of the electronic response in a free atom to unprecedented high-intensity, short-wavelength, high-fluence radiation (respectively 10(18) W cm(-2), 1.5-0.6 nm, approximately 10(5) X-ray photons per A(2)). At this fluence, the neon target inevitably changes during the course of a single femtosecond-duration X-ray pulse-by sequentially ejecting electrons-to produce fully-stripped neon through absorption of six photons. Rapid photoejection of inner-shell electrons produces 'hollow' atoms and an intensity-induced X-ray transparency. Such transparency, due to the presence of inner-shell vacancies, can be induced in all atomic, molecular and condensed matter systems at high intensity. Quantitative comparison with theory allows us to extract LCLS fluence and pulse duration. Our successful modelling of X-ray/atom interactions using a straightforward rate equation approach augurs favourably for extension to complex systems.