Mr. Smith, an insurance agent and member of the merciless Seven Days society, attempts to fly away from the No Mercy Hospital roof, and plummets down to his death. In wake of the commotion surrounding his suicide, Ruth Foster becomes the first African-American woman to give birth inside the hospital. Her son, Macon Dead III, the protagonist of the novel, is soon awarded the unflattering nickname of Milkman, so dubbed because Ruth nurses him well past his infancy. In his childhood, Milkman befriends Guitar and becomes acquainted with his aunt Pilate, a relationship Milkman's father forbids. Milkman's father, Macon Dead II, is motivated by money, and he tells his son to, "Own things. And let the things you own own other things. Then you'll own yourself and other people too." Soon, the effects of a prosperous and privileged upbringing leave Milkman naive and egocentric with no spiritual identity.
In his teenage years, Milkman begins a romantic relationship with Hagar, Pilate's granddaughter. Professionally, he assumes the responsibility of acting as his father's helper, which involves fetching the rent money and calculating the account books. In his spare time, Milkman continues to form what appears to be a close-knit friendship with Guitar. Eventually, Guitar confides he is part of the Seven Days society, a group of black males that kill whites as acts of revenge. Although Guitar justifies his actions by proclaiming white people are evil and unnatural, Milkman realizes the depths of Guitar's anger and warns him against losing his humanity. Guitar and Milkman's friendship soon grows strained.
Macon Dead II unexpectedly learns of what Pilate considers her inheritance, hanging in a green sack from the ceiling. Macon beguiles Milkman into burglarizing Pilate's home by offering him half of what is in the sack. Both men believe that Pilate's green bag is filled with gold nuggets which she stole from a cave in her adolescence. Milkman convinces Guitar to be his partner in crime; Guitar is easily persuaded as he needs funds to carry out his deadly Seven Days assignment. To their dismay, the sack contains nothing but human bones, and as a further annoyance, both men are jailed only to be released when Pilate personally comes in to the local police precinct to explain the situation. Milkman's confrontation with the police awakens his comatose character, and he decides to pursue his chase for the gold.
Embarking on a trip to Pennsylvania in order to find the gold, Milkman is bitterly disappointed when the cave he explores is empty. He does, however, come across some of Macon's old acquaintances, such as his midwife Circe and Reverend Cooper, an old friend of Macon Dead I. Circe informs Milkman that his grandfather's real name was Jake, and that his grandmother was an Indian woman by the name of Sing. Now, more so in quest of his family history than the gold, Milkman ventures down to Shalimar, Virginia.
As a newcomer in a small Southern town, Milkman faces some hostility but he quickly learns to feel affection for the intimate rural community setting. Though Milkman doesn't know it, he is being tracked by Guitar, who wants to murder him for supposedly stealing his half of the gold. In Virginia, Milkman discovers his family history, passed on from generation to generation through the form of a song. It is revealed that Milkman's great-grandfather is the legendary Solomon, who flew back to Africa in order to escape the slave plantation life. As a result of his departure, Solomon leaves behind his wife Ryna and their twenty-one children. Solomon's son, Jake, comes to be raised by Heddy, an Indian woman who also has a daughter by the name of Singing Bird. Once grown, Jake and Singing Bird flee North on a wagon full of free slaves.
Milkman's time in Virginia is a spiritual awakening, and he returns north as a newly compassionate and altruistic human being. News at the home front is dismal, as Hagar has died of a broken heart on his account. To counterbalance Hagar's tragic death, Milkman informs Pilate that the bones she has been carrying in her sack are those of Jake, her father. Milkman and Pilate then travel to Shalimar, Virginia to bury Jake's remains when a bullet intended for Milkman accidentally kills Pilate. Devastated at his recent loss but spiritually reborn, Milkman leaps towards Guitar, knowing that if "you surrendered to the air, you could ride it."