Rick Grimes wakes up in the hospital after being shot in the line of duty. He quickly realizes that not everything is as it should be, since no one is around and there are these weird corpses who insist on walking around and chasing him.
He gets smacked in the head and meets his first survivors, Morgan Jones and his son Duane. From them he learns that the government was encouraging survivors to go to Atlanta, and he heads in that direction after he and the Joneses raid a police station for supplies and weapons.
After near-disaster in Atlanta, he is found by a scavenger named Glenn and taken to his camp, where other survivors depend on Glenn’s abilities. There he is reunited with his wife (Lori) and son (Carl), and former partner Shane, and meet other survivors. One of them, Dale, warns Rick that Shane may be in love with Lori.
After an argument over moving camp and an attack by zombies, Glenn and Rick decide to return to Atlanta to find more guns. They’re successful but are attacked by zombies as they’re leaving the city, thanks to the rain washing away their zombie “disguises”. In the meantime, Shane and Lori talk about the relationship that they had while Rick was gone.
The group learns to shoot the weapons that Rick and Glenn returned with; Andrea proves to be the best shot of the group. Shane and Rick have a confrontation; that night, during dinner, zombies attack and Jim is bitten and Andrea’s sister Amy is killed.
After a funeral for Amy, Jim asks to be left outside of Atlanta. The next day, Shane and Rick are about to go hunting when an argument causes Shane to hit Rick, and Lori to hit Shane. Shane leaves, with Rick following Shane and Carl following Rick. When Rick catches up to Shane, another argument ensues, with Shane about to shoot Rick, when Carl arrives and intervenes. The book ends with Rick comforting Carl.
Those who’ve seen the show will immediately note the absence of some characters (notably the Dixon brothers) and some major differences (like how long Shane lives).