Scholarship on the literary inscription of urban space in early twentieth-century South Africa has tended to focus on Sophiatown and the writers of the 1950s ‘Drum generation’. In this reading, the idea of Johannesburg as it emerges in Drum magazine is seen to contrast sharply with earlier literary renditions of the city as a place of vice and moral decay. In this article, I draw attention to an important but little-known precursor to this emergent tradition of writing and claiming the modern city, namely journalist and writer, R. R. R. Dhlomo. As the author of a moralising fable about the depredations of city life, An African Tragedy (1928), Dhlomo is conventionally positioned as one of those writers whose reading of the city would inevitably be surpassed. This perspective ignores the significance of his popular satirical column, “R. Roamer Esq.” which appeared in the commercial African weekly The Bantu World over a period of ten years. Concerned in particular with the urban and peri-urban environments of late 1930s Johannesburg, the column maps out a detailed urban topography. Using the first-person perspective of an observing and observant urban street-walker/roamer, it calls attention to particular sites of engagement and encounter such as the court room, the train station and the street as well as the more intimate spaces encoding black urban marginality such as the backyard servant’s room. In this paper I consider what forms of the metropolis emerge from Roamer’s verbal mapping as well as what kinds of city figures, topographies, movements and interactions are inscribed. I argue that the column grants particular significance to the experience, interpolation and movement of the black body in segregationist-era urban space, offering a striking early reading of the racial city as both a place of constraint and a zone of inventive resistance. The article makes a further claim for the importance of African print cultures as an index of urbanity, of African newspapers as significant but overlooked sites of city inscription and black urban life in which the boundaries between the ‘literary’ and the ‘journalistic’ are frequently breached.