When researching his thrilling crime novels, acclaimed author Marcus Sakey stops at nothing to get the real story—he’s learned to make nerve gas, gone shooting with Special Forces soldiers, and shadowed homicide detectives. And as the host of the Travel Channel’s new show Hidden City, the former ad man visits 12 cities, digging up the dirt on some of the most notorious events in their histories. Here, Sakey reveals his most surprising discovery, his favorite crime story, and more.

Q: How would you describe the show?

A: “We’re very forthright this is not a journalism-based show. It’s about stories and how they relate to the city and bringing the audience along on an adventure as I dig into them. I don’t write a word until after I’ve done the interviews. I research it a lot, of course, but the experiences I have help me see patterns and themes and relationships that I couldn’t if it had been scripted.”

Q: The show covers serial killers, riots, bank robbers, and other dark subjects. Why do you think there is such a fascination with these kinds of topics?

A: “Ultimately, a story about people being happy is a really boring story. A story that involves tension and oftentimes violence or the threat of violence is pretty riveting.”

Q: What was the most interesting story you came across?

A: “The ‘Barefoot Bandit’ in Seattle. It’s this fantastic Peter Pan crime where he caused no physical harm to anyone. Sure, he hurt communities—but, come on, he was a 19-year-old stealing planes and managing to escape SWAT teams. How do you not love that story?”

Q: And what about your most surprising discovery?

A: “We found out Atlanta is the hub for the Mexican drug cartel; there are more drugs seized there than in Los Angeles or Chicago. But one of the things that’s interesting is crime in every city is fundamentally the same. Gangs, drugs, and domestic violence are universal. What we’re looking for are ones that tell you something about the place.”

Q: Throughout the season, you steal a car, attend an autopsy, and rappel with a SWAT team. Why is this hands-on approach so important to you?

A: “It goes back to the whole idea of seeing things as a novelist. I have advantages that journalists don’t in that I can say it’s my opinion. But I also need to get as close to the story as I can. If I want to understand what protesters went through in the 1960s riots, it means getting pepper-sprayed. For the ‘Barefoot Bandit,’ it means trying to land a plane without any training. It would be easy to write it up as Jack Ass–style stunts, but it’s really not.”

Q: How can a visitor get a taste of a city’s less-touristy side without employing these kind of tactics?

A: “I wouldn’t recommend being pepper-sprayed or trying to steal a car, but I’m a big fan of getting off the beaten path. It doesn’t mean wandering through dark neighborhoods, but ride the subway. My personal favorite is to go to a corner bar. You can do this in any city in the world: Take a seat at a corner bar and someone will start talking to you. All of a sudden you’re friends with a local. It’s amazing what the words, ‘Hey, man, can I buy you a beer’ will do.”

Hidden City premieres on the Travel Channel on Dec. 6 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

Brooke Porter is an associate editor at Travel + Leisure.